Albrecht Dürer, painter, engraver, and theoretician of the German Renaissance, created the Book of the Apocalypse in 1498 using fifteen woodcuts. The pages of this book include not only the graphic representation but also the writings of the Book of the Apocalypse. In the fourth woodcut of the Apocalypse cycle, Dürer depicts The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the first four of the seven seals that had to be opened for the Apocalypse to begin.

The four horsemen of the apocalypse
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Who are the four horsemen

The first four seals and four horsemen are Conquest, War, Famine, and Death: the four forces that move History. The names of the horsemen are not mentioned, and their symbolic meaning must be guessed from their features. Although the woodcuts are in black and white, the iconography of three of the four horses have very specific colors. To enable the observer to identify the characters, Dürer highlights their weapons.

The representation

The first horseman from the bottom in Dürer’s woodcut is Death (or Pestilence), depicted as an old, malnourished man, and like him his horse. This character is holding a trident, and in the text the color of his horse is green. The next rider is Famine, a man on a black horse. This character is holding a balance, an instrument used to weigh essential goods such as barley and wheat. The third horseman is War; this would allude to civil war and any other form of violence. His weapon is a long sword, and the color of his horse is red.

The four horsemen of the apocalypse
The Horsemen of the Apocalypse 1887, Victor Vasnetsov
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The last horseman is Conquest, a man holding a bow and arrow, on a white horse. The opinions of biblical scholars differ; it is still unclear whether this horseman represents evil or a beneficial force, and even less which force it is. For some, this horseman represents the war of conquest, hence militarism; for others, this horseman is linked to Christ, to God, and good because of the many lexical, chromatic, and iconographic features (such as the crown, the bow, and the color white linked to goodness.)

Good Omens and the new horsemen of the Apocalypse

In the Amazon Prime Video original TV series Good Omens, based on the novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and the demon Crowley (David Tennant) team up to avert the end of the world. It is the coming of the Antichrist (Daniel Mays) that triggers the Apocalypse, but it is the arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that signals the beginning. In Pop Culture, for example in the X-Men of Marvel Comics, the white knight, Conquest, is often replaced by Pestilence; this is what happens in Good Omens, but with a contemporary twist.

In the Amazon Prime Video original TV series Good Omens, based on the novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and the demon Crowley (David Tennant) team up to avert the end of the world. It is the coming of the Antichrist (Daniel Mays) that triggers the Apocalypse, but it is the arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that signals the beginning. In Pop Culture, for example in the X-Men of Marvel Comics, the white knight, Conquest, is often replaced by Pestilence; this is what happens in Good Omens, but with a contemporary twist.

Since the TV series is set in modern times (2019), Pestilence gives way to Pollution. To make the riders even more contemporary, the authors of Good Omens have replaced the horses with motorbikes, while maintaining the traditional colors of the steeds. Substituting Pollution for Pestilence is a way of communicating to the public that science has eradicated many diseases. However, according to today’s data, pollution is a new form of pestilence. So this is also a way of communicating that the health of the planet is at risk, and with it, the health of humanity.