How does an artist begin to approach the kaleidoscope of striking images that make up the Book of Revelation—a dragon that sweeps the stars from the sky, a locust army with scorpion stings, a golden city of light, a tree with leaves that can heal the nations? New Church artist G. Roland Smith spent a ten-year period from 2000 to 2010 struggling with this dilemma.
The paintings in this exhibition were commissioned by the Apocalypse Study Group, organized in the fall of 2000 by ministers of the General Conference of the New Church in England. The group met twice a year for workshops devoted to studying the Book of Revelation, and in the interim periods formed smaller groups to develop resources for others interested in the subject. The group decided early on that a visual presentation of some of the images in the biblical account of the Apocalypse would be an important tool for accessing the spiritual meaning of the text.
The meaning of the apocalyptic imagery in the Book of Revelation has long been debated by both Christian and secular scholars. Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) provided a unique explanation in his two works, Apocalypse Explained (1759), and Apocalypse Revealed (1766). The work of the Apocalypse Study Group was rooted in these two texts. For Swedenborg, the judgment event underlying the visions in the Book of Revelation can be understood as representing our own spiritual self-judgment, a judgment based on our own moral choices for good or ill.
The Apocalypse Study Group encouraged G. Roland Smith to use his own artistic vision and style. He worked closely with Rev. Christopher Hasler, a member of the group, to develop the paintings. According to Smith, “First, Christopher would send me the reference for a particular passage, together with a page of notes, whereupon I would go all broody for several days at a stretch, just sitting scribbling and worrying. Gradually, some sort of rough pencil composition would begin to come together.” Smith found the subject matter challenging as an artist because the images from the Book of Revelation relate to “literary symbolism—not visual symbolism—designed as ‘poetry’ rather than ‘painting.’ For example, a figure like the Son of Man with snow white hair, blazing red eyes, and a sword coming out of his mouth, is not difficult to decipher—white hair for outward purity, piercing eyes for visionary perception, and a sword for power [see lead photo]. But if you paint someone, just like that—literally—you will find that you have created a monster. You have to select and adapt. It’s rather like characters in dreams who seem perfectly plausible until, in the light of day, they are shown to be quite impossible.” (Source available here)
Smith studied at the Southend School of Art for three years in the 1940s until he was conscripted into the Royal Air Force where he made anatomical models and illustrations. He later became a schoolmaster, and he continues to teach, along with running a freelance commercial art business. His work has been exhibited in several London galleries. He has written books on crafts and religion, and is a member of the Chartered Society of Designers and an associate of the College of Preceptors.
For more information see the book The Apocalypse of John: Illustrated in Twenty-Five Paintings by G. Roland Smith (London: The General Conference of the New Church, 2010). Copies may be purchased in the gift shop and display copies are available in the exhibition. See also the Apocalypse Study Group’s website, which includes images of all of the paintings: http://www.apocalypse-of-john.org.uk/
The exhibition is open Saturdays from 1 to 4:30 pm and weekdays by appointment, and is included in the Highlights Tour. Admission: Donations welcome; included in tour admission.