Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Understanding the Apocalypse in Light of the Topography of Patmos

The Island of Patmos occupies an important position in the Sacred Geography of Christendom, but, unlike the other Holy Places, it is very seldom visited by strangers. There is no regular communication by steamboat. The inhabitants, even amid their poverty, do not turn the sacredness of the spot into a source of profit by organizing pilgrimages, and inviting the outside world to enrich them by paying for temporary hospitality, and for memorials of the journey.* The descriptions which have been published have been very few.** Yet the place is naturally of profound interest. The landscape, in any case, is that which was before the eyes of John. There remains, moreover, the farther question whether, during the revelation of the Apocalypse, he was conscious of surrounding objects in such a sense that this landscape was as it were the proscenium on which the figures of the vision appeared. The late Dean Stanley, in a beautiful passage in the Appendix to his Sermons in the East,*** seems to incline to such an idea:—

'The "Revelation" is of the same nature as the prophetic visions and lyrical psalms of the Old Testament, where the mountains, valleys, trees, storms, earthquakes, of Palestine occupy the foreground of the picture, of which the horizon extends to the unseen world and the remote future .... The view from the summit [of Patmos,] with the general character of its scenery, still more deeply enters into the figures of the vision itself .... The view from the topmost peak, or, indeed, from any lofty elevation in the island, unfolds an unusual sweep, such as well became the "Apocalypse," the "unveiling" of the future to the eyes of the solitary seer. It was "a great and high mountain," whence he could see things to come. Above, there was always the broad heaven of a Grecian sky; sometimes bright, with its "white cloud," sometimes torn with "lightnings and thunderings," and darkened by "great hail," or cheered with "a rainbow like unto an emerald." Over the high tops of Icaria, Samos, and Naxos, rise the mountains of Asia Minor; amongst which would lie, to the North, the circle of the Seven Churches to which his addresses were to be sent. Around him stood the mountains and islands of the Archipelago — "every mountain and island shall be moved out of their places;" "every inland fled away, and the mountains were not found." At his feet lay Patmos itself, like a huge serpent, its rocks contorted into the most fantastic and grotesque forms, which may well have suggested the "beasts" with many heads and monstrous figures, the "huge dragon" struggling for victory,—a connection as obvious as that which has often been recognised between the strange shapes on the Assyrian monuments and the prophetic symbols in the visions of Ezekiel and Daniel. When he stood "on the sand of the sea," the sandy beach at the foot of the hill, he would see these strange shapes "arise out of the sea" which rolled before him. When he looked around, above or below, "the sea" would always occupy the foremost place. He saw "the things that are in the heavens and in the earth and in the sea." The angel was "not to hurt the earth or the sea," nor "to blow on the earth or on the sea." "A great mountain," like that of the volcanic Thera, "as it were burning with fire," was "to be cast into the sea." The angel was to stand with "his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth;" "the vial was to be poured out upon the sea;" the voices of heaven were like the sound of the waves beating upon the shore, as "the sound of many waters;" "the mill-stone was cast into the sea;" "the sea was to give up the dead which were in it;" and the time would come when this wall of his imprisonment which girdled round the desolate island, should have ceased; "there shall be no more sea." .... We understand the Apocalypse better for having seen Patmos.'

On the other hand, we get such a view as that expressed by Renan. Writing upon this very point, he says,**** speaking of the Apostles in general and of the Beloved Disciple in particular,—

'Men so heated as these sour and fanatical descendants of the ancient prophets of Israel, carried their own imagination about with them wherever they went; and this imagination was so uniformly imprisoned within the sphere of the ancient Hebrew poetry, that the nature which surrounded them had for them no existence. Patmos is like all the other islands in the Archipelago,—an azure sea, limpid atmosphere, serene sky, great rocks with jagged edges, slightly covered here and there by a scanty coating of verdure. The general appearance of the island itself is bare and barren, but the shapes and tints of the rocks, and the living blue of the sea, specked with white birds and contrasted with the reddish colour of the boulders, form a wonderful picture. The myriads of isles and islets, of the most varied forms, which rise from the waves like pyramids or shields, and dance an eternal chorus round the horizon, seem to be a fairy world belonging to a cycle of sea-gods and Oceanides leading a bright life of love, of youth, and of sadness, in sea-green grottoes, upon shores without mystery, by turns smiling or terrible, sunny or dark. But such ideas as Calypso and the Sirens, the Tritons and the Nereides, the dangerous charms of the sea, with its caresses at once so sensuous and so deadly, all those refined feelings which have found inimitable expression in the Odyssey,—all such things entirely escaped the imagination of this gloomy visionary. Two or three particular features, such as tho prominence given to the idea of the sea, and the image of "a great mountain burning in the midst of the sea," which he seems to have borrowed from Thera, are the only things which have any local colour. Out of a little island formed to be the scene of the lovely romance of Daphnis and Chloe, or of pastorals such as were conceived by Theocritus or Moschus, he has made a black volcano, bursting with ashes and fire. And yet, he cannot have avoided sometimes feeling a sense of the peaceful silence of the nights on these waters, when nothing is heard but the occasional cry of a seagull, or the dull blowing of a porpoise. For days together he was in face of Mount Mycale, without thinking once of the victory of the Hellenes over the Persians, the most glorious which has ever been gained, next after Marathon and Thermopylae. Placed thus in the very midst of the greatest Greek creations, at a few leagues from Samos, from Cos, from Miletus, and from Ephesus, he dreamt about other things than the colossal genius of Pythagoras, of Hippocrates, of Thales or of Heraclitus; for him the glorious memories of Greece had no existence. The poem of Patmos ought to have been some Hero and Leander, or an idyll in the manner of Longus, celebrating the gambols of beautiful children upon the threshold of love. But the dark enthusiast, cast by accident upon these Ionian shores, never got out of the circle of his Biblical recollections. Nature for him was the living chariot of Ezekiel, the monstrous cherub, the unnatural bull of Nineveh, an outrageous zoology which sets sculpture and painting at defiance. That curious defect which, to the eyes of Orientals, seems to change the forms of nature, the defect which causes all the figured representations that come from their hands to seem fantastic and lifeless, was at its climax in him. The disease which he bore in his bowels coloured everything to his sight. He saw with the eyes of Ezekiel or of the author of the Book of Daniel; or rather, he saw nothing but himself, his own passions, hopes, and hatreds. A vague and dry mythology, already Cabbalistic and Gnostic, and all based upon the conversion of abstract ideas into Divine beings, has put him outside the range of the plastic conditions of art. No one has ever shut himself out more entirely from his surroundings; no one has ever more openly renounced the sensible world, in order to substitute for the harmony of the reality, the contradictory chimaera of a new earth and a new heaven.'*****

As a matter of fact, the island of Patmos belongs to that class of Greek landscape which is strongly suggestive of the north-west coast of Scotland. A very fair idea of its general appearance would be formed from some of the wildest and most barren coasts of the islands, allowing only for the living sapphire of the sea, the luminous transparency of the atmosphere, and the fact that the rocks are brown rather than grey. It is extremely picturesque, from its wild forms, but it is one of those places which, like the island of Bute, afford the best views to those who are upon them rather than to those who see them from outside. To a passer by, it presents no features so striking as the heights of Samos, which tower in view of it. But to him who has landed in it, and explores its hills and glens, it affords extraordinarily beautiful pictures, both in its own wild, though limited landscapes, and in the vast and enchanting prospect which it offers on every side. In form, it is so irregular, that it seems simply a group of stony hills, linked together by sandy isthmuses, and separated by deep bays, while other hills, still unjoined, rise from the sea in the form of islets around its shores. The predominant feature of the island is sterility. The masses of rock and stones are thinly sprinkled with small tufts of brownish herbage. The cultivated land is confined to the bays and a few glens, and, except in the North, is only a small fraction of the surface. Trees, and even bushes, such as pomegranate or prickly-pear, are rare, and hardly to be found except in the scanty gardens. Such as it is, the surface of the country is streaked with stone walls, dividing the different properties. The inhabitants, about 3000 in number, are poor. The corn which they produce does not suffice for their own consumption; and the burden of £200, which, with another £100 made up by the monastery, they are obliged to pay yearly to the Porte, lies heavy on them.


* No such thing as a photograph can be obtained, nor are there even religious pictures for sale.

** The principal authority seems to be the Description de l'ile de Patmos et de l'ile de Samos, par V. Guerin (Paris, Auguste Durand, 1856}. The description given in the present paper was written almost entirely at Patmos, and before the author had had the advantage of reading M. Guerin's exceedingly valuable work. It is fuller in some respects, especially as concerning the churches, than that work, but poorer in others, especially on antiquarian and historical points. It is published as it was written, but some footnotes have been added, citing with acknowledgment several valuable statements from the French author. In some few particulars, though none of importance, the present writer differs from M. Guerin, owing, no doubt, in some cases, to changes which have occurred since 1855, and, in others, to one or other having misunderstood or been misinformed.

*** Sermons in the East, pp. 229-231. The passage cited was evidently written away from the spot, and somewhat carelessly; for instance, the Dean had evidently entirely forgotten the respective positions of Asia Minor and Naxos with regard to Patmos.

**** L'Antechrist, pp. 376-9, third edition.

***** This characteristic outburst is said to have been written by M. Renan without ever having enjoyed the advantage of being in the island in question. He himself says that after struggling for an whole day, the state of the wind prevented his entering the port. This does not, of course, necessarily imply that he did not succeed on some other occasion; but the present writer was informed on the spot that he never had been there, and the same assurance was given to Vannutelli.

From The Scottish Review, Jan. and Apr. 1885, London.