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Robert Roberg

Babylon, the Great, is Fallen, 1992, Acrylic, oil, tempera, and glitter on canvas, 101.3 x 101 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum; Gift of Chuck and Jan Rosenak and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 1997.124.28, © Robert Roberg; Photo: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC / Art Resource, NY

Unknown artist

Sestertius showing the goddess Roma seated on the seven hills (reverse), Head of Vespasian (obverse), 71 CE, Copper alloy coin, Weight: 24.72 g, The British Museum, London, 1872,0709.477, © The Trustees of the British Museum / Art Resource, NY

William Hogarth

A Harlot's Progress, Plate 1, 1732, Etching and engraving, 313 x 384 mm, The New York Public Library; The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, 5042979, From The New York Public Library; http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/59295290-b503-0130-cf8f-58d385a7bbd0

The Whore of Babylon

Video Commentary by

Ben Quash: Michelle, the Whore of Babylon is probably one of the most vivid and controversial figures in the Bible. And some of the issues about curating this figure are quite challenging. So how have you gone about curating her?

Michelle Fletcher: I wanted to bring out some of the different personalities of the Whore of Babylon that she’s had in scholarship and through reception history, through the different images that have happened, since her inception in the first century, in visual art. And the first way I wanted to think about her is as a symbol. The Whore is an incredibly emotive figure: dressed in purple and scarlet, holding a cup full of abominations, drunk on the blood of the saints, bejewelled. What’s going on? Well, in verse 18 of chapter 17 of the book of Revelation we’re told ‘the woman that you’ve seen is a great city’. And this line, in a sense, defuses this emotive image. The woman is taken away and we realize that she is a symbol of a city. And so the first object that I chose to work with is Robert Roberg’s 1992 didactic painting.

Roberg worked as a street evangelist. He wanted to draw people into the story that he had to tell, and at that point it was about end times and judgement. But his paintings are alive with explanations. He doesn’t just give you cryptic imagery, he writes solutions in. So, we have this lurid, bright-pink beast with a woman with the blondest hair.

Ben Quash: A kind of Barbie...

Michelle Fletcher: Exactly. Barbie rides the beast. But we are told that the woman is a city. We are told that the horns of the beast represent kings. We are told that the waters on which they are upon are many nations. And so the whole time in this image, we’re shown strange symbolism and a way of understanding it.

And so Roberg helps to defuse some of the difficult issues and show us that in Revelation 18, when we’re told ‘fallen, fallen is Babylon the great’, this is imagining the destruction of a city, a system, and an oppressor. And that’s really what I wanted to do in my second object, was take us to the heart of the historical issue that this text is wrestling with.

And it’s one of dominance. The audience that the book of Revelation is written for are struggling under the empire of Rome. Rome is the controlling power. It’s strange, and it’s imposing belief systems on the Jewish Christian communities that they don’t want to be part of. What do you do when faced with a system like that? Well, you can turn it on itself through imagery. And in this coin we can see ancient images of how the goddess Roma, Dea Roma, was perceived. She's seated on the seven hills, the seven hills of Rome.

Ben Quash: A bit like a big armchair.

Michelle Fletcher: Exactly. She’s reclining. She’s in power. She’s in control. She’s got a sword on her knee, and suckling at her feet are Romulus and Remus with a she-wolf, a lupa. David Aune argues, when we look at Revelation 17 and we see this prostitute seated on seven hills, this is a satirizing of this victorious imagery of the goddess Roma. She’s turned into a prostitute, the word lupa being slang for prostitute.

Ben Quash: But it’s interesting that Rome already kind of projected itself in the figure of a woman. And the book of Revelation is following its lead, but flipping it so that this image of triumph and power becomes turned.

Michelle Fletcher: Yes. And it’s building on a history of interpretation in the Hebrew Bible of cities being rendered as women. So updating images for the now. In the Hebrew Bible, Babylon is the evil city. It destroyed the city of Jerusalem, it destroyed its Temple, it carried everybody off into exile. And so Revelation is taking this known imagery and this known evil city and updating it for a first-century audience, because their Babylon is Rome.

Ben Quash: And they’re using Babylon as a codeword for Rome.

Michelle Fletcher: Exactly. Who is our power today? Babylon AKA Rome.

But there’s a problem with all of this, which is there’s a body at the centre of all this, and it’s a woman’s body. And not only is it a woman’s body, it’s a prostitute—a woman at the edge of society, on the margins. And that’s why I chose my third image, which is the first of a series of six prints, A Harlot’s Progress by Hogarth, 1732.

Ben Quash: A real person?

Michelle Fletcher: It’s a fictional character, but she’s inserted into a real-world narrative. In this first image that we’re seeing here, she is fresh off the cart from York and she’s greeted by a prostitute who’s based on a real-life character who in the 1730s died in a pillory. She was called Elizabeth ‘Mother’ Needham. She ran a brothel and whilst being punished in the pillory, an angry mob actually murdered her.

And we see in the right, a man in the background who is staring, quite provoked by this image of this fresh woman. She’s not leading him into temptation—he’s already well down the path. And he was a notorious rapist, Colonel Charteris. So these two figures show the reality of the world of the prostitute. And this is why I wanted to bring this image into dialogue with the Whore of Babylon.

Ben Quash: And the reality of the city. Again, the city is embodied in people, in this case, the evils of the city are embodied not in the harlot-to-be, but in the brothel-keeper and even more perhaps in this figure of Colonel Charteris.

Michelle Fletcher: Exactly. And the moneymaking. In the end, Hogarth made his fortune from this print series. This was the thing that really set him up. But behind this image is a real woman. And as a feminist scholar, this is what I want to bring to the fore. The Whore of Babylon is not just a symbol, it’s a woman. Prostitutes are women. They are real people who are on the margins of society, ignored by everybody, exploited, and vilified. But in reality, they’re caught up in a system and they are at the bottom of that system. And so when people are choosing their imagery and choosing what to call their enemies, or what symbols to use to describe the worldview they want to unveil, what happens when you choose a prostitute? Well, the legacy’s still here, 2000 years on. We see the Whore of Babylon still as a problematic image. We see people vilifying prostitutes. This is a matter that’s still live and we still need to be reminded of that, and to sometimes defuse the imagery of the book of Revelation, but also to remember what happens when we are trying to address these issues.