Victor Vasnetsov. Four Horsemen of Apocalypse.
1887. Oil on canvas.
Sketch for a fresco in the Cathedral of St. Vladimir in Kiev.
State museum of a history of religion, St. Petersburg, Russia.
The "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" is a term used to describe a concept from the New Testament of the Christian Bible, in chapter six of the Book of Revelation. Although scholars disagree as to what exactly each horseman represents, the four horsemen are often referred to as Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death. They are part of an apocalyptic vision in which God summons and empowers them to wreak divine havoc on the world. Each is revealed, individually, when the first four of seven seals are broken/opened in Revelation.
I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.
— revelation 6:1-2 NIV
The white horse of the apocalyptic four has been argued to represent either evil or righteousness.
When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, "Come!" Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a huge sword.
— revelation 6:3-4 NIV
The rider of the second horse is often taken to represent War. His horse's color is red. In some translations, the colour is specifically a "fiery" red. This color, as well as the rider's possession of a large sword, suggests blood that is to be spilled on the battlefield. The second horseman may represent the war of conquest as opposed to civil war that the first horseman brings.
When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, "A quart of wheat for a day's wages, and three quarts of barley for a day's wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!"
— revelation 6:5-6 NIV
The third horseman rides a black horse and is generally understood as Famine. The black colour of the horse could be a symbol of the dead. The horseman carries a pair of balances or weighing scales, indicating the way that bread would have been weighed during a famine.
Of the four horsemen, the black horse and its rider are the only ones whose appearance is accompanied by a vocal pronunciation. John hears a voice, unidentified but coming from among the four living creatures, that speaks of the prices of wheat and barley, also saying "and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine." This suggests that the black horse's famine is to drive up the price of grain but leave oil and wine supplies unaffected. One explanation for this is that grain crops would have been more naturally susceptible to famine years than olive trees and grapevines, which root more deeply; the statement might also suggest a continuing abundance of luxuries for the wealthy while staples such as bread are scarce, though not totally depleted. Alternatively, the preservation of oil and wine could symbolize the preservation of the Christian faithful, who used oil and wine in their sacraments.
When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, "Come!" I looked and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
— revelation 6:7-8 NIV
The fourth and final horseman is named Death. Of all the riders, he is the only one to whom the text itself explicitly gives a name. Still others apply the names "Pestilence" or "Plague" to this horseman, based on alternative translations of the Bible (such as the Jerusalem Bible). Unlike the other three, he is not described carrying a weapon/object, instead he is followed by Hades. However, illustrations—like those above—commonly depict him carrying a scythe (like the Grim Reaper) or a sword.
The color of Death's horse is written as khl?ros (??????) in the original Koine Greek, which is often translated as "pale", though "ashen", "pale green", and "yellowish green" are other possible interpretations. The color suggests the sickly pallor of a corpse. The natural colors of horse coats that could be indicated include dun, palomino, buckskin, or one of several color variants with dilution genes.
The verse beginning "they were given power over the fourth of the earth" may refer solely to Death and Hades, or it may summarize the roles of all four horsemen; scholars disagree on this point.
The other three horsemen represent evil, destructive forces, and given the unified way in which all four are introduced and described, it may be most likely that the first horseman is correspondingly evil. The German Stuttgarter Erkl?rungsbibel casts him as civil war and internal strife. One interpretation—which was held by evangelist Billy Graham—casts the rider of the white horse as the Antichrist, or a representation of false prophets, citing differences between the white horse in Revelation 6 and Jesus on the white Horse in Revelation 19. Revelation 19 Jesus has many crowns, but in Revelation 6 the rider has one.
Irenaeus, an influential Christian theologian of the second century, was among the first to interpret this horseman as Christ himself, his white horse representing the successful spread of the gospel. Various scholars have since supported this theory, citing the later appearance, in Revelation 19, of Christ mounted on a white horse, appearing as The Word of God. Furthermore, earlier in the New Testament, the Book of Mark indicates that the advance of the gospel may indeed precede and foretell the apocalypse. The color white also tends to represent righteousness in the Bible, and Christ is in other instances portrayed as a conqueror. However, opposing interpretations argue that the first of the four horsemen is probably not the horseman of Revelation 19. They are described in significantly different ways, and Christ's role as the Lamb who opens the seven seals makes it unlikely that he would also be one of the forces released by the seals.
Besides Christ, the horseman could represent the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was understood to have come upon the Apostles at Pentecost after Jesus' departure from earth. The appearance of the Lamb in Revelation 5 shows the triumphant arrival of Jesus in heaven, and the white horseman could represent the sending of the Holy Spirit by Jesus and the advance of the gospel of Jesus Christ.