Apocalypse as Processional: John’s Visions in the Shadow of the Aphrodisias Sebasteion

This paper considers the images of John’s second vision cycle (Revelation 11:19—22:5) alongside the visual rhetoric of the Sebasteion temple-complex at Aphrodisias. The performance of John’s visions unfold like a ritual festival procession with relief-like scenes of battle, triumph, and the investiture of divine imperium in the arrival of the iconic champion of the Lamb. Considering this performance in light of the Sebasteion of Aphrodisias in Caria—a sacred complex designed to broadcast the Roman imperium of the Juilo-Claudian dynasty in myth and allegory processing toward a temple for imperial cult worship—we observe how the scenes of John’s vision build a memorial for a counter-social order for those living in Roman Asia Minor by evoking a dramatic repertoire of iconic scenes.
The Sebasteion, with its double-facing stage-like three-storied porticoes framing a processional way, is the festival march of the Roman triumphal procession carved into stone and arranged in an architectural complex which ushers participants up to a temple for imperial worship. The recovered reliefs positioned among the colonnaded façade display, among other things, a consistent portrait of Roman domination of the inhabited world, stereotyped activities of gods and heroes, subdued nations living under the Pax Romana, and the absorption of Hellenistic mythology into imperial ideology. These panels mirror descriptions of the victorious iconography and paraded spoils which were staged in multi-tiered models for the Roman triumphal procession (cf. Josephus, B.J. 7.5; Pliny Nat. 35.22–28; Polybius, Hist. 6.15.8). The Sebasteion is Rome’s victory parade enshrined in architectural structure. This engineered innovation combines distinct architectural forms of Roman components and local Hellenistic building patterns. Flanked on both sides, devotees are invited to contemplate these images in the theater of imperial glory as they ascend toward the temple complex for axiomatic fidelity. The narrative of “empire without end, imperial conquest by land and sea, night and day”[1] is established and memorialized each time an adherent traverses the sacred pathway. Wandering and contemplating along the processional is invitation to surrender to the imperium.
John’s apocalypse, likewise, presents stereotyped images of battles scenes, subjugation of enemies, militaristic triumphs, and the establishment of a divine social order culminating in temple participation (21:9—22:5; cf. 15:1–8). The scenes invoke common mythic images familiar to the region combined with themes adapted within the Judean apocalyptic milieu in order to lead the Christ-followers of Asia Minor into a distinctive social imaginary that rewrites the Roman imperium and its allegiant commitments. Giving narrowed focus to the iconography of Revelation’s champion in 14:1–20 and 19:11–21, we will explore the visual interplay of the Lamb and his followers, heralding angels, and the harvest scenes of judgment, and the vanquishing of his opponents as they are juxtaposed with the iconography of the Sebasteion. Experiencing the performance of the Apocalypse requires the audience to respond to the confrontation of allegiances in what is displayed as those who are seen by God, marked either for the Lamb or the savage-beast.
[1] R.Smith, “The Imperial Reliefs,” JRS 77 (1987), 96.