Looking into the shadow of the Apocalypse
History is punctuated with tales of mass destruction and cataclysmic disaster. Whether caused by the vicissitudes of nature or by human intervention, we are regularly reminded of the fragile nature of life on earth and constantly challenged to make sense of the seemingly inexplicable.
In the past decade catastrophic events such as earthquakes, tsunami, nuclear accidents, terrorist attacks and wartime atrocities have continued to fill news outlets, pose conundrums for scientists and governments, and generate widespread anxiety and doubt among the general population the world over.
“Until very recently historians and art historians have had little to say about disaster, for disaster as an historical category seemed beyond the scope of historical or structural analysis,” says Charles Zika, Professorial Fellow in the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne.
“But in the context of a need to grapple with disaster in the contemporary world, and to confront a growing social consciousness of environmental risk and climate change, historians have begun to give disaster greater attention.”
Professor Zika and his colleague Dr Jennifer Spinks, both of whom are collaborators in an ARC Discovery Project in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, have long conceived the idea of an exhibition featuring images prevalent throughout late medieval, Renaissance and Reformation Europe to provide insight into the art, life and thought of the times, and which in turn provide signals for a deeper understanding in the modern-day context.
With funding provided by the ARC, loans of prints and rare books from the Baillieu Library’s Special Collections and the State Library of Victoria, and collaboration with the Prints and Drawings staff of the National Gallery of Victoria, Catherine Leahy and Dr Petra Kayser, the exhibition and accompanying 96-page publication titled The Four Horsemen: Apocalypse, Death and Disaster is now a reality and runs until the end of January at NGV International.
It presents a rich and fascinating range of images of death and disaster in prints, illustrated books and illuminated manuscripts from the 15th to the early 18th centuries, a time Professor Zika describes as “a period of immense social, political and religious change and transition in European history…frequently characterised by anxiety and crisis.
“The exhibition takes its title from one of the most iconic apocalyptic subjects in early modern Europe,” says Professor Zika, “which finds its most influential representation in a woodcut by the Nuremberg artist Albrecht Dürer first published in 1498.
“This woodcut is part of a cycle of fifteen images in which Dürer famously gave visual form to (the Biblical book of Revelation), the final book of the New Testament, also known as the Apocalypse.
“Jumbled landscapes inhabited by terrible monsters, frightened sinners, devout faithful, thunderous natural signs and inhuman, heavenly angels make up the Dürer series,” says Dr Spinks. “Themes of violence and punishment run through many of the images, and the hell mouth appears as a terrifying reminder of the ultimate destination of the damned.”
In early September, Dr Spinks and Professor Zika convened a symposium at the University of Melbourne to coincide with the exhibition at the National Gallery. Drawing international academic experts from across Australia and the world, the conference likewise explored the different ways communities and individuals understood disaster and mass death in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the impact of human emotions in shaping these understandings.
“Disaster and mass death, whether as the result of war, plague or extreme events in nature, gain significance as key signs by which to understand the flow of history through to the present,” says Professor Zika, “and by an appeal to historical exempla and apocalyptic scenarios, they also act as both terrifying and comforting signs and portents for the future.”