If we were to ask ourselves what the difference is between this depiction of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (ie the inaugural vision of how the world is coming to an end as described in the Book of Revelation)….
And this depiction....
Or this version....
Or this one....
What would you say?
Besides the fact that Durer's woodcut uses no language to help communicate its message (while the three contemporary cartoons definitely need and use words), the main difference I think is that the first is a straightforward illustration of the dramatic text found at Revelation 6:8:
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"Then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer.
"When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature call out, ‘Come!’ And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another; and he was given a great sword.
"When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature call out, ‘Come!’ I looked, and there was a black horse! Its rider held a pair of scales in his hand, and I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a day’s pay, and three quarts of barley for a day’s pay, but do not damage the olive oil and the wine!’
"When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, ‘Come!’ I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth."
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The latter three versions are “take-off’s” of the original; they take Revelation’s dramatic imagery and tweak it in order to editorialize the contemporary world and shed light on the real how’s and why’s an apocalypse is soon on its way:
(1) Our last several bad US Presidents
(2) Our bad US President (regardless of who it is)
(3) Corporate America (and sex offenders from Iowa, of course)
These three illustrations are also darkly funny. They cleverly suggest that the End Time is not on its way because it’s “Judgment Time in the Heavens.” Rather, it's because very “low” humans with “low” motives in places of very “high” power and influence are acting like fools and getting away with it because the wool is being pulled over our eyes. It’s not terrifying so much as ridiculous the way really things are! Even though all will end spectacularly awfully unless…
.…We get the joke, see what’s really going on and let humor both relax and invigorate us to make change. Evil and “the inevitable” does not have to be given the last word...or last laugh.
This is the strategy always of satire, here and everywhere.
Actually, I think this is the strategy of the original text, too. “The Four Horseman” is a satire! The first hearers of John’s revelation would have found Revelation 6:1-8 to be as darkly funny as an Nebraska apocalypse involving Walmart.
We’re told Horseman #1 is given a bow to carry and a crown to wear. He is going to destroy the world by “conquering.” This is the language we give to one who is victorious in war. While we may initially assume this cryptically tells us God (via the Lamb) is sending out Horseman #1 as the first of many to destroy the world with the might of a heavenly army and thump to the ground we poor humans who God has totally had enough of, the fact that a “bow” is involved suggests something rather different.
At the time the Revelation was originally written down and shared, there was a worldly power more mighty and feared than any other: Rome. And the indomitable Roman army, while always making a big deal about its ability to conquer everyone and everything because of its unsurpassed military might, had one thorn in its side: the Parthians. And Parthia, located in what’s now northeastern Iraq, was known for its nimble military archers.
While Parthia defeated Rome several times, the former’s most notorious “conquer” of the latter took place in 53 BC at Carrhae. There, the Parthian army, with but 1,000 armored cavalry, 9,000 horse archers and a clever technique known as the "Parthian shot" (in which horsemen would fake a retreat, only to turn and fire upon their opponents), devastated Rome's much larger and more elaborately equipped legions. 20,000 Roman soldiers were killed, 10,000 captured and another 10,000 escaped west.
Poor Rome! Undone so thoroughly and with seemingly so little! (But isn't that always the way a giant is felled??)
Maybe that’s the real insight John of Patmos brings in the first Horseman: great worldly power really isn’t so great, no matter how it may boast it to be so. If God wants to conquer an Empire, He really doesn’t need to do that much. Just be sure to bring along some bows.
I'm sure this would have been Good if challenging News to John of Patmos' hearers, who were constantly bombarded with propaganda about how all should bow to Rome and celebrate her great achievements. It was easy in those days to mix your imperial patriotism with your Christian faith. John warns the people not to do so...the Emperor has no clothes. (An arrow whizzed by and ripped them right off! If I had any artistic ability, I'd create an editorial cartoon depicting that!)
And, if I had artistic ability I'd provide my own editorial vision of what that Horseman #1 might look like and be up to today. If the point is a mighty Empire can be felled with something remarkably humble and simple, maybe, in today's political parlance, he would be coming out of the heavens wielding not a bow, but this....
When you think about it, whether you like it or not, the American Empire has become undone in all sorts of ways after 9-11, a tragedy incurred with the most "bow-like" of implements and clever of strategies. If the End Time is on its way, as many now predict, John of Patmos' satiric vision might be suggesting God needs to do very little to make it happen; today's Empire is well on its way to doing it to itself.
Unless we get the joke and make some changes, letting laughter relax and strengthen us for the struggle ahead with the Powers that Be.
I'll share my thoughts about how the other three Horsefeathers, er, Horsemen, of the Apocalypse provide more insight into -- and satire about -- God, Rome and the United States in my next blog. Tomorrow!
It's my Fourth of July (and Fourth of July season) specials!!