It's the End of the World as we know it at the Vatican

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An extraordinary exhibition of religious art that began life in the tiny Alpine village of Illegio is offering visitors to the Vatican Museums a panoramic vision of the End of the World.

Encompassing 100 works of art from the 5th century to the 20th, including masterpieces by El Greco, Dürer, Dali, Matisse and De Chirico, Apocalypse: the last Revelation leads visitors through the hallucinatory last book of the Bible, with quotations from St John the Divine's work alongside paintings, prints, stone sculptures, reliquaries and icons from every Christian epoch.

Perhaps we have Francis Ford Coppola and his Apocalypse Now blockbuster to blame for our identification of "apocalypse" with bloody mayhem. Or perhaps it is the decline of faith that has led us to view the Christian vision of the end of the world (in which unbelievers get the short end of the stick) as likely to be unpleasant. But the curator of the exhibition, Alessio Geretti, believes the new show will help to revive an interpretation of the Book of Revelation as "a book of hope, where justice eventually triumphs".

"It is undeniably positive," he insists, "because we admire the marvels of Jerusalem the Golden in works that take one's breath away; but also because Revelation explains that while this tale of evil that intersects with the history of the world goes ahead, there is also a story of good that spreads everywhere. In the end the destiny of evil will be its ruin and its complete failure, while the good will triumph through all eternity."

In the mean time visitors to the exhibition can enjoy the stunning vigour and vividness with which artists such as Albrecht Dürer captured The Last Judgement and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The Book of Revelation is believed to have been written by John the Divine, the author of the Fourth Gospel, while in exile on the Isle of Patmos at the end of the 1st century AD. It is presented as the transcription of a mystical vision, and he and future readers are warned right at the end not to try editing it – "If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book."

The book is so dense, obscure and loaded with phantasmagorical imagery that readers can extract from it practically anything they fancy. The core of the narrative is the final rebellion by Satan at Armageddon, the vanquishing of Satan by God and the restoration of peace to the world.

It is the only apocalyptic book to have been granted canonical status, but that has been frequently challenged, by Martin Luther for example, who said it was "neither apostolic nor prophetic" because "Christ is neither taught nor known in it".

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