The figure of Revelation 19’s Rider and his Horse is the focal point here. This is fairly typical of Max Beckmann’s approach to Revelation in his series Apokalypse. Throughout his coloured lithographs, Beckmann picks out one or two verses or figures from each chapter to focus on.
Here the Rider is surrounded by his human victims and the birds that devour them (Revelation 19:21). The birds, something of an aside in the text itself, are especially prominent due to their disproportionately large black eyes and angular beaks.
In some aspects, these birds recall an earlier work of Beckmann’s, Bird’s Hell (1937–8), a searing critique of the hellish society created by the Nazis. In Bird’s Hell the birds represent Nazi torturers. Thus, although in this Apokalypse lithograph image the birds appear to be in league with the Rider on the White Horse, there is an ambiguity about them of which the viewer would be wise to be mindful. This intuition is compounded by the fact that the bird at the front centre of the image is possibly feasting on the body of the Whore of Babylon. The semi-nude female certainly bears a resemblance to Beckmann’s ambiguous visualizations of this figure earlier in the series. Perhaps picking up on Revelation 17:16, which deals with the grisly death of the Whore at the hands of the Beast and has given rise to interpretations of the Whore which explore her own victimhood, Beckmann’s half-naked Whore appears to be a victim of sexual violence at the hands of three men.
The potential identification of the Whore of Babylon as one of the Rider’s victims allows the viewer to sense a continuity in Beckmann’s visual narrative which, as here, often seems to dwell on those whom Beckmann perceives to be the text’s real victims.
11 Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. 12His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed which no one knows but himself. 13He is clad in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. 14And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, followed him on white horses. 15From his mouth issues a sharp sword with which to smite the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. 16On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, King of kings and Lord of lords.
17 Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly in midheaven, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, 18to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.” 19And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who sits upon the horse and against his army. 20And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had worked the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulphur. 21And the rest were slain by the sword of him who sits upon the horse, the sword that issues from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.