In his evocation of a ‘shining city on a hill’, Puritan leader John Winthrop (1588–1649) cemented the idea of America as the earthly site of the book of Revelation’s New Jerusalem. One of the most eccentric versions of this idea appears in the final chapter of Franz Kafka’s novel Amerika (written 1911–14). In this unfinished work, Kafka envisions America, a country he never visited, as a land of lawless opportunism and arbitrary authority. His beleaguered hero Karl Rossmann arrives, after many trials and tribulations, at the gates of the Nature Theater of Oklahoma. This institution serves as a metaphor for America’s promise as the land of new beginnings. At the entrance to the Theater, Karl is greeted by a host of angels creating a fearful din as they make very disharmonious music with their golden trumpets.
This comic scene is the basis of a series of paintings produced by the Art and Knowledge Workshop of Tim Rollins and the Kids of Survival. An American artist collective, the Workshop employs works of classic literature as teaching tools for groups of at-risk urban teenagers. Under the guidance of Rollins, who is the Workshop’s founder, the Kids of Survival transformed the last scene of Kafka’s Amerika into a celebration of creative freedom.
The Amerika paintings present intricate compositions of multifarious and entwined horns whose forms are drawn from such popular and high cultural sources as the Italian Renaissance artist Paolo Uccello’s battle scenes, African masks, Santeria icons, Hollywood horror films, Louise Bourgeois sculptures, and birds in flight. Painted in gold over the spread-out pages of the book itself, they give exuberant visual form to the promise of renewal and rebirth embodied by the New Jerusalem, a home ‘for those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life’ (Revelation 21:27).
21Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; 3and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”
5 And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment. 7He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son. 8But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.”
9 Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues, and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10And in the Spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, 11having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed; 13on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. 14And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
15 And he who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. 16The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its breadth; and he measured the city with his rod, twelve thousand stadia; its length and breadth and height are equal. 17He also measured its wall, a hundred and forty-four cubits by a man’s measure, that is, an angel’s. 18The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, clear as glass. 19The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. 21And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass.
22 And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, 25and its gates shall never be shut by day—and there shall be no night there; 26they shall bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.