Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out
Reset image Reset image
Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out
Reset image Reset image
Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out
Reset image Reset image

Thomas Cole

The Course of Empire: Desolation, 1836, Oil on canvas, 99.7 x 160.7 cm, New-York Historical Society Museum & Library; Gift of The New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, 1858.5, Bridgeman Images

Theodoros Poulakis

The Hymn to the Virgin Icon; Eπί Σοί Xαίρει…(In Thee Rejoiceth...), an icon depicting a multitude of scenes, Second half of 17th century, Oil on panel (tbc), 92 x 64 cm, Benaki Museum, Athens, 3008, © 2021 Benaki Museum

Adriaen Collaert after Maerten de Vos

Alexander the Great as the Third King, from the Vision of Daniel, 1570–1618, Engraving, 225 x 262 mm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Courtesy of Rijksmuseum

Rise and Fall

Comparative Commentary by

When we find ourselves in a dire situation, we crave to know when the end might be in sight.

Things were no different around 600 BCE, during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar, when people from the kingdom of Judah were deported to captivity in Babylon and the prophet Daniel, a strict Jew, was forced to live surrounded by the opulence of the Babylonian court. Or so at least this text imagines him (Daniel 7 is likely to have been written in the second century BCE by a Jewish author who faced his own persecution from the Hellenistic ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes).

The writer portrays Daniel as the recipient of a series of spectacular eschatological visions, concerned with the end of time. In allegorical imagery that formed an important source for the later book of Revelation, Daniel narrates what to expect from the future, and, equally importantly, presents a rough timescale of when to expect it.

The opening eight verses of Daniel’s first vision (Daniel 7) describe four fantastic beasts emerging from ‘the great sea’ (v.2): a winged lion, that has its wings amputated and is converted into a biped with ‘a man’s heart’ (v.4); a bear with three ribs in its mouth between the teeth, which is instructed to ‘devour much flesh’ (v.5); a leopard with four wings and four heads (v.6); and a ‘dreadful and terrible’ creature with ten horns and iron teeth that wreaks destruction on the world (v.7). This fearsome foursome is ultimately followed by an appearance of the enthroned Ancient of Days and the Son of Man among the clouds of heaven.

In the explanation in the second half of Daniel 7, we learn that ‘these great beasts… are four kings’ (v.17), whose kingdom shall eventually be taken over by ‘the saints of the most High’ (v.18)—an interpretation that is related to Daniel’s earlier reading of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a statue made out of four different metals (Daniel 2). Daniel’s time-scale projects that there will be four successive worldly kingdoms before the eventual Kingdom of God.

The Daniel of 600 BCE would have witnessed first-hand the demise of the Babylonian empire and the rise of the Medo-Persian one. The first of Daniel’s two beasts (the winged lion and the bear) refer to these two empires. Writing with hindsight, a second-century BCE author would have known that the Persian empire in its turn had been overcome by Alexander the Great, whose Hellenistic empire is referred to by the third beast (the winged four-headed leopard), and that Greece was eventually conquered by the Roman state (the monster with ten horns and iron teeth).

Some artists took this succession of empires as a subject in its own right, such as the Antwerp duo Maerten de Vos and Adriaen Collaert in their series of four prints.

One event that was not foreseen by the author of the book of Daniel was that his Jewish text would become part of the Christian Bible, an integration that took place still within the context of the fourth, or Roman, empire. Christians, reading Daniel’s visions, started wondering when to expect the predicted Kingdom of God.

In medieval Europe, when most Christians lived in either the continuation of the eastern Roman empire (Byzantium) or a revival of the western one (the Holy Roman Empire), they could perceive this final transition as a point in the (near) future, usually associated with the Last Judgement. For propagandistic purposes, they could also argue that a struggle to establish the Kingdom of God was taking place in the here and now—a notion perhaps underlying the representation of the four kingdoms in the icon by Theodoros Poulakis, made during a time when Christianity was felt to be under threat from the Ottoman Turks.

As interesting as the precise meaning of Daniel’s vision of the four beasts is the cyclical conception of history that underlies it. This conception was not exclusive to Jewish visionaries of the Old Testament. The ancient Greek father of history, Herodotus, also describes historical events as a constant ebb and flow in the rule of now this centre of power, then another. In later Western consciousness, it was the fall of the Roman Empire that loomed large as a reminder that however great the might of a nation, there was always the threat of eventual (and perhaps inevitable) decline—as visualized in the series The Course of Empire by the nineteenth-century American painter Thomas Cole.

In that sense, Daniel 7:1–7 contains a warning that modern empires and those who believe in their greatness should perhaps take closely to heart.

 

References

Collins, John J., Peter W. Flint, and Cameron Van Epps (eds). 2002. The Book of Daniel: Composition and Reception (Leiden: Brill)

Niskanen, Paul. 2004. The Human and the Divine in History. Herodotus and the Book of Daniel (London: Continuum)

Spinney, Laura. 2012. ‘Human Cycles: History as Science, Nature, 488: 24–26

‘Cyclic View of Time in the Philosophy of History’, www.britannica.com