The Apocalypse (Revelation 19:11–16), from Apokalypse by Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann

The Apocalypse (Revelation 19:11–16), from Apokalypse, Executed 1941–42; published 1943, Coloured lithograph, 390 x 300 mm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Gift of Mrs. Max Beckmann, 1984.64.66, © Max Beckmann Estate, Artist Rights Society, New York/VG Bid-Kunst, Bonn

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Necessary Death?

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Revelation presents a Satanic consortium which is destroyed by the Rider. However, here we see no sign of the Beasts whom the Rider defeats in Revelation 19:20. In their place are a pile of distorted human bodies, the forgotten collateral damage of the battle of Armageddon. It seems as if the ‘real’ victims are not the members of the Beast’s evil consortium but rather ordinary humans. In terms of Revelation, their deaths are necessary for the establishment of the New Jerusalem but it is fascinating that Max Beckmann draws such attention to them.

The Rider himself bears some of the features of the original text: light radiates from the sides of his eyes, he wears a multi-pronged crown, and he brandishes two swords (although they do not emanate from his mouth). But overall he seems hollow-eyed and rigid, especially in comparison to the fleshly bodies upon which his horse tramples. Is this then a critique of the militaristic side of Revelation? This would hardly be a surprise given Beckmann’s own traumatizing experiences in both the First World War as a soldier and during the Second World War as an exile from his native Germany. His own image of the New Jerusalem, in which an angel wipes tears from John’s eyes, privileges a future reality based not on militaristic victories but on human relationships.

Thus, in some ways this is a confronting image (especially when placed in the context of the entire series) in which viewers are asked to question not only their reading of Revelation but also their own self-understanding, and their own sense of the victim/perpetrator dynamic that this book of the Bible harnesses even while seeking to transcend it.

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