Art and the Church
The Vision of the Throne Room by Albrecht Dürer
Word and image Bible study - Revelation 4 and 5 and the Vision of the Throne Room by Albrecht Dürer
Target Group For small groups or personal study.
Aim Every Sunday Christians gather all over the world for the highlight of their service to God: their communal praise and worship. In many congregations there are intense discussions about the meaning of this liturgy and about its design. This Bible study wants to show a perspective that might easily be overlooked: there is not only worship on earth, but also in heaven and these two are connected.
Subject When the apostle John is in exile on the island of Patmos at the end of the first century, he sees overwhelming visions of events that will take place in the course of history. He sends a description of these visions to seven congregations. Fourteen centuries later, in 1498, the young Albrecht Dürer publishes a book with woodcuts that is devoted to Die heimlich Offenbarung Johannis. It has a large size(the woodcuts are 29 x 40 cm) and it is printed in German as well as in Latin. Without any colour, with only thin and thick stripes more or less close to each other, he impressively portrays visions that are full of colour, light and dark, and sound. In this Bible study we focus on the vision that is described in Revelation 4 and 5.
Set-up We start with a round of discussion to hear from each other what we think heaven is like. What does it look like? What do we think God looks like? Who are with him and what is happening in heaven? And: do these things play a role in our life of faith? And in our liturgy? Next we read Revelation 4 and 5 and look at the woodcut by Dürer. A few questions will help us on our way. When we will have discussed the chapters and the woodcut, we will read the explanation (in blue). Then we will take a moment to consider if our idea of heaven has been changed by this study. Finally we consider the implications for our liturgy or worship.
Scripture reading Revelation 4 and 5. A door in heaven is opened and a voice invites John to come up. The Spirit carries him up into heaven. He is given a glimpse of heaven and the voice promises him that the future will be revealed to him. In Revelation 4 we are shown the first scene: the revelation of heaven.In Revelation 5 a second scene follows: someone must open the scroll. Read the text carefully and try to imagine what John sees and hears.
1. What does John see as most central in heaven? What does it look like?
2. Who are located around this centre?
3. What do those present do?
4. Who is the one who sits on the throne?
5. John sees and hears something that saddens him. What is it?
6. Someone in the middle before the throne can take this sadness away? Who is it and what does he do?
7. What do those present do?
8. Who share in worship at the end?
The Vision of the Throne Room by Dürer John describes a succession of images and events.
Dürer portrays them in only one image. Look at it carefully and compare it with the biblical text. What strikes you? Are there any differences with how you thought it would look? Do you see that there are elements in it that belong to Dürer’s own time?
(you can find a larger image here: http://www.statenvertaling.net/kunst/iconclass/73G)
Explanation John is an eyewitness of the heavenly liturgy. The glorious centre of all that he sees is formed by the throne and the person sitting on it. (In these two chapters the word ‘throne’ is mentioned no less than fifteen times.) The appearance of the Ruler – God himself – is dazzling. His brilliance and that of the bow around his throne is comparable to the splendour of precious stones. John cannot come closer because of the lightning, the thunder and the roaring sound that go out from the throne. Before the throne, moreover, burn seven fiery torches – the Spirit of God – and a sea of glass spreads itself out in front of it. Undoubtedly upon hearing and seeing all of this John has thought about the way God revealed himself to the people of Israel in the desert (Exodus 19 and 20). When the Lord descended upon mount Sinai the people were not allowed to come close to see the Lord, for then they would lose their life. It was so terrifying that the people shrunk back and remained standing at a great distance. And when Moses, Aaron and the elders a little later were allowed to go up the mountain to meet God, they saw beneath God’s feet above them something like a pavement of sapphire, shining brightly as heaven itself (Exodus 24). We small human beings cannot come close to the Holy God!
John sees two circles of worshippers around the throne: twenty-four elders and four living creatures. The elders represent the believers who have died. They have brought the battle of faith to a good end and have received their reward: they are allowed to sit in close proximity to God upon thrones wearing white clothes and golden crowns (see Revelation 3:5 and 21; 1 Corinthians 9:24-25). The creatures – representatives of creation – have six wings with which they can fly in all directions as God orders them. They have eyes on their front side with which they behold the majesty of God, and eyes at their back that allows them to see everything that happens in heaven and earth. They remind us of the creatures that Ezechiel saw in a vision (Ezechiel 1). In the second century Irenaeus compares them to the evangelists: just as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each in their own way show us something of Christ, these creatures do this as well. The lion shows how Christ rules as king, the young bull represents his priestly sacrifice, the human being stands for the true humanity of Christ, and the eagle proclaims Christ descending into the world. With this comparison Irenaeus wants to emphasize that we can know Christ through each of the gospels, but that we can know him more fully through the four gospels together. (In early depictions of Christ the four creatures are portrayed to point to the four aspects of his being. Later they become symbols for the four evangelists.)
The worshipers celebrate a continuous liturgy together. They praise God with the words that were also sung for him by the people of Israel (Psalm 99) and that were heard by Isaiah in a vision of heaven (Isaiah 6:3): ‘Holy, holy, holy!’ This song of praise makes clear that God is worthy to receive all honour, as he is all powerful and has made everything, as he is eternal and faithful to his promises.
Despite this overwhelming sight John is overcome by sadness, as he had expected that he would be shown the future and that he would see what was soon to happen. These words refer back to Daniel 2:28, where Daniel makes known to king Nebukadnessar what will happen at the end of time: God will defeat all powers and establish a kingdom that will never perish. It is important to John to know that through Jesus they will take part in the kingdom, as he is writing to the seven congregations which are going through hard times just like him (Revelation 1). But the scroll full of prophecy that God is holding in his right hand, is closed with seven seals. As long as the scroll can’t be opened, the future will remain a closed book. Is there anyone who will be able to change this?
One of the elders tells the apostle that there is indeed someone who is able to do this: a lion with the appearance of a lamb. This lamb with seven horns and seven eyes – representing the power and the watchfulness of the Spirit of God – is Jesus Christ. He is crucified, has died and is risen from the grave, and has ascended into heaven. Only now John notices the lamb. He sees that the lamb does not need to keep his distance from the throne like he does, that the sea of glass or the lightening do not deter him. He approaches God and receives the scroll. As soon as this has happened, the worship of the elders focuses on the lamb. They now sing a new song that makes clear that he is worthy to share in the honour that belongs to God. For he has bought his people with his blood and formed them into a kingdom. The elders offer him plates full of incense. These are the prayers of God’s children on earth. In this way the earthly liturgy is taken up in the heavenly worship. Next the liturgy expands to include a great host of angels who gather around the throne and bring homage to the lamb. And everywhere, in heaven and on earth, beneath the earth and in the sea, creatures join in to praise him who sits on the throne, the lamb and the Spirit (the seven fiery torches), who together are the triune God. The four creatures respond with ‘Amen’ and the elders throw themselves down in worship.
The upper part of the woodcut by Dürer is devoted to the vision of the throne room. The room is visible through a stone portal with opened wooden church doors. It is remarkable that in Dürer’s work we see a human figure on the throne, whereas John does not give us a precise description of God’s appearance and reverently limits himself to a reference to God’s majesty. Dürer ties in here with a way to portray the Trinity which came into use in the twelfth century: the Mercy Seat. This is a depiction of God the Father sitting on his throne, while pointing to his Son who died for us. Sometimes he has a crucifix in his hands, sometimes he holds Jesus on his lap. It is the latter Dürer must have had in mind as the lamb jumps with his forepaws on the book that is lying on the Father’s lap. In the depictions of the Mercy Seat the Holy Spirit hovers like a dove between Father and Son or above the Father’s head. In line with this Dürer has not placed the seven fiery torches before the throne, but above the head of the Father.
The lightning, thunder and roaring sound are portrayed in the form of clouds interspersed with faces, pointed flashes and black stripes. Just as the fiery torches they are not located between John and the throne, neither is there a sea of glass. Instead we see before the throne the angel, calling for someone who can open the scroll.
The twenty-four elders have careworn faces. Some lay down their crowns (Dürer made them beautifully crafted – his father was a goldsmith) before the throne, while others play their harps. Their thrones look like the wooden choir stalls in Dürer’s time. John (who according to F. van der Meer has the face of Dürer himself) is being addressed by one of the elders. The last part of chapter 5 with the liturgy of heaven and earth has not been depicted.
In the lower part of the woodcut we see a quiet summer landscape with a town in the distance. It could be Nuremberg. Through this, and through portraying himself as John, Dürer seems to stress that this vision is important for his time and his contemporaries. The events in heaven speak about the course of history on earth.
Worship In the desert the people of Israel were given directions for their life and their worship in the tabernacle. But between the people and God there was a barrier of fire, thunder and lightning. They were not allowed to see him. Moses was allowed to see him for just an instance, but also then the pavement of sapphire created the necessary distance. John saw God in a vision, but shielded by fire, thunder and lightning and from behind the sea of glass.
And we? We are on earth and God is in heaven. We are, however, given a glimpse of heaven through the eyes of John. And even though we seem to be far removed from God, we know that our gatherings and those in the heavenly Jerusalem are connected with each other (Hebrews 12:18-29). We worship God and the lamb with all who belong to him. And even though on earth we cannot see what is ahead of us – it is not visible to us (2 Corinthians 5:7) – in heaven there is already great joy about the eternal reign of the Messiah.
What does the above mean for the way we experience worship? And was does it mean for the content and form of our liturgies? In answering these questions, keep the various aspects that we have seen in mind: the threat and distance, but also the joy as the distance has been bridged by the lamb.
Finally Christians through the centuries have praised God in the knowledge that were doing this in the company of may others. A good example of this is the hymn Te Deum Laudamus, which most likely dates from the fourth or fifth century. It might be an idea to sing this hymn together.
This study is prepared by Ida Slump-Schoonhoven, who is an art historian and coordinator of ForumC-Kunst and the Rookmaakerkring in The Netherlands.