Visions of the Apocalypse: A Heavenly Choir or a Lake of Fire?
Every year has its share of blockbuster movies where you can watch the human race meeting a sticky end, either from either a ghastly pandemic, forces of evil, whether human, alien or robotic, or a natural cataclysm. Of course, this is nothing new. The earliest Christians believed that the end of the world was imminent, and the last book of the Bible, Revelations, contains a vision of the struggle between good and evil leading up to the Final Judgment. Otherwise known as the Apocalypse of St John the Divine, it is believed to have been completed during the reign of the Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD), while John was exiled on the island of Patmos.
Detail of St John on the island of Patmos, from the Abingdon Apocalypse, England (?London), 3rd quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 42555, f. 5r
The poetic imagery of the passages from the Bible, the symbols involving numbers, strange beasts and human and demonic characters, are open to a myriad of interpretations. Beginning in the Carolingian era, illustrated manuscripts of the Apocalypse were made to help interpret the text. At the British Library, we have a number of Apocalypse manuscripts with extensive cycles of images. In this and a series of blog posts we will be looking at how the main themes and images are treated in some of them.
Digitised Apocalypse Manuscripts
Four of our Apocalypse manuscripts are fully digitised, and here is one of our favourite images from each:
The Silos Apocalypse
The woman clothed with the sun, Revelation 12:1-18, from the Silos Apocalypse, Spain, 1091-1109, Add MS 11695, ff. 147v-148r
The Abingdon Apocalypse
Detail of a priest blessing the Sacrament on the left and on the right Christ with the slaughtered Lamb, Adam weeping, Noah in the ark, Jonah and the whale, Add MS 42555, f. 10r
The Welles Apocalypse
Earthquake and kings hiding, with John beside, from the Welles Apocalypse, England, c. 1310, Royal 15 D II, f. 131r
The Queen Mary Apocalypse
Detail of a dragon, a woman in bed, and her child being caught up to heaven, from the Queen Mary Apocalypse, S.E. England or East Anglia, 1st quarter of the 14th century, Royal 19 B XV, f. 21r
Visions of Heaven and Hell
The dramatic imagery in Apocalypse manuscripts contrasts the mystical vision of peace in Heaven with the torments in store for wicked men on Earth in the events leading up to the Last Judgement. For those who believed the end was nigh, these images left no question which side you should be on!
The iconography varies from the well-known stairway to Heaven to hosts of angels with black wings to the many-storied New Jerusalem.
The Lamb and angels and the four living creatures with saints and the chosen of Israel below, Add MS 11695, ff. 112v-113r
Detail of the revelation of the heavenly Jerusalem to St John, Add MS 42555, f. 79v
Detail of the Vision of Heaven, from the Yates Thompson Apocalypse, Paris, c. 1370-c. 1390, Yates Thompson MS 10, f. 19r
Heaven and Earth, and the new Jerusalem, Royal MS 19 B XV, f. 40v
A door opening to Heaven, Royal MS 15 D II, f. 117v
Hell on earth is filled with wonderfully ugly beasts, gaping mouths and lakes of fire.
Detail of the opening of the bottomless pit, Royal MS 19 B XV, f. 15v
Detail of a hell-mouth with three beasts, a devil and many souls inside; fire falls from above, Add MS 42555, f. 76v
Detail of the Rider on a pale horse, emerging from a hell-mouth, with John, Royal MS 15 D II, f. 129r
For more images of hell-mouths from our medieval manuscripts, check out our blog post Prepare to Meet Your Doom!
Birds including a peacock, a hawk, a raven, a dove, a cockerel, a pelican, and an owl are called to eat menâ€™s flesh and the false prophet is cast into a lake of fire, Yates Thompson MS 10, f. 33v
- Chantry Westwell