Behold! A Beast with seven heads and ten horns. A horrible Beast who devours. A Beast that looks like a leopard and a lion and a bear. A blasphemous Beast who receives worship from the whole world.
Scholarly consensus holds that in many early Christian communities, Revelation 13 operated as a metaphor, describing contemporary Roman emperor worship as sacrilegious. Informed by this scholarship, many contemporary Christian readers interpret the passage as a warning about the perils of nationalism (DeSilva 2019): a warning against putting loyalty to earthly governments above one’s loyalty to God.
The consensus of scholars is not, however, something that influences the Bible interpretations of millions of Christians today. Many conservative American evangelicals are convinced that the Beast described by Revelation 13 is so bizarrely and horribly explicit that it cannot possibly be metaphorical. To them, this passage of Scripture describes a simple, visible, future reality. Revelation’s Beast is literally a Beast seen by the prophet John in a detailed vision.
Modern scholars often dismiss biblical literalism as the simplistic hermeneutic of the unlearned. This way of interpreting the Bible, however, is much more complex and imaginative than it first appears. It takes significant mental work to put together a coherent vision of the Beast from Revelation’s patchy descriptions. It also takes imagination to apply these ‘literal’ views of the Beast in a way that speaks to everyday concerns.
Since the nineteenth century, an influential segment of American evangelicals have lived as if Jesus will return to earth very soon. These Protestants have outlined the many supernatural events that will precede the Second Coming, such as wars, famines, and earthquakes. They have considered the appearance of the Beast in Revelation 13 to be one moment in this broader sequence of supernatural events leading up to Jesus’s return. Because they have believed that Jesus is coming back very soon, these evangelicals have felt a great urgency to convey their message as quickly and as widely as possible. To help with this, they have often created images of the Beast that appeared in popular charts, journals, and cartoons.
The diagrams and illustrations in this exhibition come from three very different strands of conservative American evangelicalism. Joshua V. Himes (1805–95) followed the teachings of a self-educated prophet named William Miller, who used the Bible to convince thousands of Americans that the world was going to end in 1843. Clarence Larkin (1850–1924) explained how Scripture worked like a machine, believing that if one could understand how the interlocking parts of its timelines fit together, the meaning of the whole would become clear. The cartoonist Basil Wolverton (1909–78) became a follower of a radio preacher who said the world was probably going to end before 1999 in a nuclear war.
American evangelicals were not the first Christians to depict Revelation’s Beast in such visual detail. Christian artists—and Protestants in particular—have a long history of visualizing it. During the Protestant Reformation, for example, Lucas Cranach placed a three-tiered papal tiara on the Beast’s head in his woodcut illustrations of Luther’s German translation of Revelation, turning the Beast into a visual polemic against the papacy (O’Hear 2015: 131–54).
But it is because the three images in this exhibition are not deploying visual art in this metaphorical way that they reveal important features of ‘literalist’ imaginations.
Far from being simplistic or unlearned, these ‘literal’ images are striking not only for their grotesquery, but also for their visual complexity and internal coherence. The works demonstrate the interpretive difficulties evangelicals have overcome by creating pictures of scriptural texts—texts that frequently baffle ordinary thinking.
It takes surprising artistic skill and imagination to create ‘literal’ renderings of the creatures described in the Bible. Those visual renderings then take on immense significance for the interpretive process of these Christians. For them, John really saw a Beast whose physical characteristics conveyed important information about the future apocalypse. So the visual details of artistic renderings mattered. Drawing and viewing these literal images rendered truth for evangelicals so they could see the world through the prophet’s eyes.
While these works reveal much about ‘literalist’ Bible interpretation, it is also important to recognize how they functioned in their original contexts. Nobody contemplated the visual creations of Himes, Larkin, or Wolverton in the disinterested space of a fine art gallery. These images were made into posters, printed in magazines, projected onto church walls, and circulated hand-to-hand as cheap tracts. They served a clear evangelistic purpose. Their goal was to convince viewers to find salvation visually before time ran out.
These three illustrations attempted to convey absolute truth. They were meant to make doubters realize that Jesus was coming back very soon. They were meant to clarify the meaning of a complicated passage of Scripture by making it visible to the eyes. They were meant to scare the hell out of the viewer—literally.
Crapanzano, Vincent. 2001. Serving the Word: Literalism in America from the Pulpit to the Bench (New York: The New Press)
DeSilva, David. 2019. ‘Sign of the Beast (Rev 13:11–18)’, www.bibleodyssey.org, [accessed 13 March 2020]
Morgan, David. 2007. The Lure of Images (New York: Routledge)
O’Hear, Natasha and Anthony O’Hear. 2015. Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia (New York: Oxford University Press)
Sutton, Matthew. 2017. American Apocalypse (Cambridge, MA: Belknap)
13 And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems upon its horns and a blasphemous name upon its heads. 2And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority. 3One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed, and the whole earth followed the beast with wonder. 4Men worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”
5 And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months; 6it opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. 7Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and tongue and nation, 8and all who dwell on earth will worship it, every one whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain. 9If any one has an ear, let him hear:
10If any one is to be taken captive,
to captivity he goes;
if any one slays with the sword,
with the sword must he be slain.
Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.
11 Then I saw another beast which rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 12It exercises all the authority of the first beast in its presence, and makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound was healed. 13It works great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of men; 14and by the signs which it is allowed to work in the presence of the beast, it deceives those who dwell on earth, bidding them make an image for the beast which was wounded by the sword and yet lived; 15and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast so that the image of the beast should even speak, and to cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain. 16Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18This calls for wisdom: let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty-six.