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William Blake's 'The River of Life'

William Blake was affected throughout his life by the power of Revelation, its beasts and its vision of the future via the New Jerusalem. He produced watercolours and engravings on themes from Revelation during the 1790s and early 1800s as well as a series of watercolours on Revelation for his patron, Thomas Butts, between 1800 and 1805. His depictions of the city are perhaps the most influential of all imagined Jerusalems in the British artistic tradition.For Blake Jerusalem was the antithesis of Babylon—which, in his mind, was to be equated with London—and the locus of a new birth. He expanded on this idea at great length in his epic illustrated poem, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804–1820). The image of the New Jerusalem shown here is, on the face of it, a fairly literal visualisation of the River of Life in Revelation 22:1–2. The city of the New Jerusalem described in Revelation 21 is not depicted. A river flows from the sun in the background—probably God’s throne of Revelation 22:1—through a street of the ‘city’, encircled by fructifying trees of life. The banks of the river are adorned with classical buildings, perhaps harking back to a nobler age, and the overall impression is one of space and light, in contrast to the dark and dirty London of Blake’s poems. Although this New Jerusalem is peopled—in contrast to many of the earlier manuscript depictions where humankind is conspicuous by its absence—it is difficult to make out who the figures are. The androgynous figure dressed in white and swimming with his back to us may be Jesus, while the flying figure is probably an angel. In contrast to Blake’s other works, there is no manifest difference in size between the human figures and divine ones; it is of interest that Blake has included children in this vision of the New Jerusalem—perhaps suggesting that, in his view, one appears in heaven at the age at which one dies.

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Gordon Cheung's 'Rivers of Bliss'

Described by Paul Hobson as an example of 'the techno-sublime', Cheung delivers a very twenty-first century image of the New Jerusalem in this large-scale montage. Created as part of an exhibition entitled ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, in which Cheung also tackled other themes directly lifted from Revelation (including the Four Horsemen themselves), Cheung applied his signature style to the New Jerusalem. In his landscapes, influenced by John Martin among others, Cheung transposes digital landscape imagery onto a base layer of collaged stock-listings newsprint from the Financial Times; he then augments the work with spray paint, oil pastels and ink. In this image the ‘rivers of bliss’, possibly a reference to the River of Life of Revelation 22:1, sit at the forefront of the image, with the Financial Times stock-listings reflected in them. The waters are enclosed in a rainbow, reminiscent of Revelation 4:3; in the background are scenes of fiery mountains and possibly buildings on fire—perhaps intended to capture the corrosion of capitalism. A lone figure—perhaps a latter-day John—watches from a mountain top. This is a far more ambiguous New Jerusalem than even John Martin’s work, a long way from the golden pomp of the Trinity Apocalypse’s ordered city vision or the Edenic visualisation presented by the Van Eyck brothers in The Ghent Altarpiece. Although it does present a kind of cleansing, it does not present a fully reassuring vision of the post-apocalyptic future.

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'The River of Paradise' from The Angers Apocalypse Tapestry

This image of the New Jerusalem is from the 14th century Angers Apocalypse Tapestry. Unlike the first image in the tapestry's New Jerusalem sequence, which depicts the New Jerusalem as a city, this image depicts the New Jerusalem as the River of Life, flowing down from God’s throne amidst an Eden-like garden. As in the Trinity Apocalypse, God and the Lamb (Christ) remain in their mandorla (the almond-shaped aureoles of light) and are not mingling freely on earth. John, however, has left his shelter, symbolising his new-found understanding. His exit from the shelter—from which, in the Angers Tapestry, he has thus far viewed the whole of the Revelation—may represent symbolically the removal of barriers between the divine and the human realms that the coming of the New Jerusalem signifies (Revelation 22:2–4).