The apocalypse or the end of times is a typical feature in a linear time-perception. Time is visualized as a part with a beginning and an end. Creation and its mythological symbolism are the beginning and the apocalypse and its consequences mark the end. The idea of an afterlife contributed to the absolute character of the division. The journey of the soul reached a dramatic point of decision in the Last Judgement, which was so vividly described in St. John’s Apocalypse. Redemption and grace either led to eternal bliss in Heaven or the soul was condemned to perpetual punishment, tormented by demons, dragons and serpents in Hell.
The view of time as an actual ‘part’ is, from the wider perspective of (tetradic) thinking, an indication of a communication, which is situated in lower division-thinking. This particular observation point is typified by an emphasis on (empirical) boundaries. Apocalyptic manifestations and the attention paid to the end of times is a sign of oppositional thinking. This concern can lead to sectarian behavior with the chosen ones waiting for the grand finale (GRAHAM, 1983). The sharp boundary between good and bad, God and satan, Christ and the Antichrist will facilitate the procedure on Judgement Day.
COHN (1970) attributed ‘salvationism’ with the following qualities: collectivism, an earthly character, the immanence (the expectation of events happening at short notice), the universal and the miraculous. These specific points are often in great supply when times of uncertainty arrive and the search for a (new) solidarity is on.
The Monastic Revival in the tenth century of the history of Europe was a good example of the close relation between a ‘strictness in thinking’ (the orthodoxy of the Benedict’s Rules; LAWRENCE, 1984), the search for identity and its divine and material rewards. The foundation of the monastery of Cluny in 910 by William Duke of Aquitaine (William the Pious) hallmarked the beginning of a distinct spiritual movement. The Cluniac reform spread rapidly from France southwards to Italy and Spain, eastwards to Germany, Hungary and Poland and northwards to England, all within a period of little more than a century.
The millennium-year 1000 AD was situated within this period. There might be some significance in a numerological sense, but historical research has not revealed a special celebration of that year. The ‘European mind’ must have been far too diverse at the time to pay attention to such an absolute event. It can be concluded, in hindsight, that the silent, creative forces of a higher division notion were still fully active, maybe even in the worship of silence and prayer of the Benedictines themselves.
Gary SCHMIDT (1995), in his interesting description of the iconology of the mouth of hell (fig. 295), noted a dramatic shift after the twelfth century from the private and devotional representation of this component of the Last Judgement to the public domain: ‘Its symbolic meaning was so accessible that it became the most common way of envisioning hell in the Middle Ages, particular when the audience was a popular, non-literary audience.’
Fig. 295 – Martin Luther on the pulpit. Protestants to the left and the Catholics in the mouth of hell to the right. Woodcut by L. Cranach the Younger (1515 – 1586). In: PALLOTTINO (1966).
Frits VAN DER MEER (1978) composed a richly illustrated and informative book on the biblical Apocalypse (of St. John). He described the major medieval occurrences in manuscripts, cathedrals, paintings and carpets. The iconology of the apocalypse was based on the Bible book ‘The Revelation of St. John the Divine’, where the end of times is announced by the opening of the seven seals (fig. 296/297):
Fig. 296 – The opening of the seven seals. Beatus of Gerona, around 975 A.D.; Gerona, Archivo de la catedral I, f. 109. In: MEER, van der (1978). Also in: PALOL & HIRMER (1965).
‘And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see. And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, come and see. And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.
And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse: and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny: and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth’ (Revelation 6: 1 – 8).
Then another three seals are opened, but no horses appear anymore: the fifth with the souls of them that were slain for the word of God; the sixth is the great day of wrath, with earthquakes, a black sun and a moon as blood, when ‘the stars of heaven fell unto the earth’ and finally the seventh seal was opened (Revelation 7: 1 – 3):
‘And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the winds should not blow on the earth, or on the sea, nor at any tree. And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, Saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads.’
Fig. 297 – The Lamb, Christ and the opening of the Seven Seals. Petersburg Apocalypse. In: QUISPEL (1979).
The four horses, with their colors, are a metaphor of the periods of time in the history of the world (SIMMONS GREENHILL, 1954):
HORSE COLOR ERA TYPE
—— albus white Adam to Flood ignorantiam
—— rufus red Flood to Incarnation sin/punishment
—— niger black Incarnation to Present martyrs
—— pallidus pale (grey) Beatus of Gerona
Beatus’ ‘Commentaries on the Apocalypse’ was a much copied work from the monastery of Liebana (Cantabria, Spain). The first vellums were written in 776, and a second version was made in 784 AD. They provided an early example of the four horses as a sign of the end of times (fig. 298).
Fig. 298 – A copy of the Beatus’ ‘Commentaries on the Apocalypse’ from the cloister of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain. Early twelfth century (in 1109). The manuscript was acquired in 1840 by the British Museum in Londen (The British Library Add. Ms 11695).
Fig. 299 – The four apocalyptic horses from the Beatus of Fernando and Sancha, f. 135. The horses are typified as follows: I: albus (white): days of innocence; II: rufus (red): learn to live with mistakes; III. niger (black): the present with a verdict; IV. pallidus (grey): the end of times. In: QUISPEL (1979) and WILLIAMS (1978).
A cursory examination of the material, guided by the work of KLEIN (1976), learned, that the (original) ‘Beatus’ is not a specific tetradic work. The four (apocalyptic) horses are part of the story, and there are other tetradic features in decorations as well (fig. 300), but there is no dominance of the motif.
Fig. 300 – Some tetradic decorations from various Beatus-manuscripts are given here (KLEIN (1976). In particular, the ‘Arca testamenti’, with its quadrifoil, was a recurring motif. 1. Explenatio Supra Seculpre. Burgo de Osma, Bibl. Cat. Ms. 1, fol. 116v. Fig. 102:
KLEIN (1976). 2. Paris, BN lat. 8878, fol 77v. Fig. 72 in: KLEIN, (1976). 3. Arca Testamenti. Lissabon Arqu. Nac. Torre do Tombo, cod. 160, fol. 152r. Fig. 99 in: KLEIN, (1976). 4. Arca Testamenti. Escorial, Bibl. Mon. cod. &.I.5, fol. 103v. Fig. 100 in: KLEIN, (1976).
The topic of the four horses of the Revelation gained again momentum in a woodcut of Albrecht Dürer (fig. 301). The theme was popular at the time: tapestries in the chateau of Angers, designed by Jan Boudolf around 1377, showed six apocalyptic horsemen (actually on half-horse half-lion!) (SMEYERS et al., 1993; fig. 302). And Bartholomaeus von Unkel used the subject in the Cologne Bible of 1478 (WEHMER et al., 1971; fig. 303).
Fig. 301 – The four apocalyptic horsemen from the ‘Revelations of St. John’ as markers of the pivotal point in the European cultural history. Woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, printed in Nürnberg (1498), 39,2 x 28,4 cm. This is number five from a series of sixteen woodcuts. The quaternion is activated within the context of dualistic thinking: the four horsemen are the negative figures contrasting with the benevolent archangel-guardians of the four directions. They represent war, famine, illness and death as the powers, which destroy mankind. Fig. 14 in: CRAIG & BARTON (1987).
Fig. 302 – A fragment of the tapestries with the Apocalypse, designed by Jan Boudolf, ca. 1377. In the castle at Angers (France). In: SMEYERS et al. (1993). Complete illustration: p. 195 in: STEMBERGER (1977/1979).
Fig. 303 – From the ‘Kölner Bible’ of Bartholomaeus von Unkel, around 1478. Attributed to the printer Heinrich Quentell (d. 1501). In: WEHMER et al. (1971). And: MARLE, van, (1932). And: MEER, van der, (1978). p. 278, fig. 182.235: British Museum, London. MS Add 11695, f. 240r. And: SMALLEY, Beryl (1974). Historians in the Middle Ages. Thames and Hudson, London.
Fig. 304 – The Four Horsemen by Hans Holbein. In: QUISPEL (1979).
The motif of the pale horse (pallidus) as the representation of the end of times was also separately used in pictures and paintings, like the majestic mural in the Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo (Italy) (fig. 305)
Fig. 305 – The Triumph of Death in the Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo (Italy). The fourth and final horseman is named Death and seen here with a bow and arrow (Photo: Marten Kuilman, 2012).
A more recent effort to depict the scene was done by the author in 1988 (fig. 306):
Fig. 306 – Death on a Pale Horse (on paper, 75 x 100 cm) by Marten Kuilman (1988).
The imageries of St. John, as described in his Revelations, are a distant echo of the visions of vocation by the prophet Ezekiel in the Bible book named after him. This prophet-priest assumed his position as ‘watchman’ over the exiled people of Israel. His book contained forty-eight chapters, divided at the halfway point by the fall of Jerusalem. The four creatures, with four faces and four wings, figured right in the beginning of the book, when ‘the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God’ (Ezekiel 1 : 5) (fig. 307).
Fig. 307 – The apocalyptic animals in the Bible (Ezekiel/Revelations). The four beasts (a lion with eagle wings, a leopard with four heads, a bear and a beast with eleven horns) signify the four world monarchies. British Museum, London. MS Add 11695, f. 240r. In: SMALLEY (1974).
The prophet Ezekiel, when in exile in Babylon, provided (much later in time) the imagery of St. Matthew as an angel (or man), St. Mark as a lion, St. Luke as a bull, and St. John as an eagle, in turn from the Assyrians (CAMPBELL & MOYERS, 1990). Their palaces were decorated with sculptured creatures, featuring the head of a man, the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle and the feet of a bull (fig. 308). They were the four signs of the Zodiac chosen as a guardian at the gate.
Fig. 308 – The Assyrian winged bull. These types of sculptures were used as guardian at the gates of palaces. They represent the four Zodiac sign of man, lion, eagle and bull in one creature. The prophet Ezekiel, who was exiled in Babylon, must have known this symbolism. The signs were used, in the later (Medieval) interpretations, to indicate the character of the four evangelists: St. Matthew (man), St. Mark (lion), St. Luke (bull) and St. John (eagle). In: GLOAG (1975).
The reputed apocalyptic mood around the year 1000 has been discussed earlier (A time of transition; ORTEGA Y GASSET, 1904; SWOBODA, 1979). The fatalistic nature around the year 1350, associated with the deadly pest, was historically better documented. However, the great thoughts about the end of times were only recorded after the pivotal point (PP) in the European cultural history, established at the year 1500 AD. CHASTEL (1983) mentioned in the period between 1520 and 1530 fifty-six authors and hundred-and-thirty-six pamphlets, which were concerned with predictions and astrological calculations to establish the (immanent) end of times (fig. 309).
Fig. 309 – The title page of J. Carion’s ‘Prognosticatio‘ (1521) depicted, in the top picture, extreme weather circumstances and profiles in the lower picture the emperor (the sun), the pope (Jupiter), a farmer (Saturn), and a knight (Mars). The latter two are threatening a believer (= the Church of Rome), while the first two look on in despair. In: CHASTEL (1983).
The sense of an immanent end of the world has been a part of history ever since those scary days in the early sixteenth century. The year 1666 was, for religious reasons (666 was the number of the beast, mentioned in the Gospel of St. John, Revelation 13:17-18), another documented reason to expect a forthcoming catastrophe.
The fear of large-scale devastation became reality in recent history in two World Wars, and the treat continued for another forty years in a ‘Cold War’. Oppositional thinking between the world powers (America and Russia and their respective allies) brought the use of (atomic) weapons of mass destruction within reach and was felt and acted upon by mankind. Fortunately, common sense (and a wider frame of mind) has prevailed and apocalyptic thoughts are since pushed to the political background, at least for the time being.
An alternative to harbor apocalyptic thoughts was found in the geological theory of catastrophism, which got a boost when ‘cosmic material’ (iridium) was found in a red layer of clay of half an inch at the boundary of the Cretaceous and the Tertiary (ALVAREZ et al., 1980/1990). This boundary had already some notoriety, because the paleontological evidence revealed a severe reduction or even extinction of a number of animal species, including the famous Dinosaurs (AXELROD & BAILEY, 1968; BELAND et al., 1977; BERGGREN & van COUVERING, 1984; fig. 310).
Fig. 310 – The concurrent extinction of a number of animal groups at the close of the Cretaceous period, some 65 million years ago (NEWELL in: BERGGREN & van COUVERING, 1984).
The boundary of the Cretaceous and the Tertiary (K-T) boundary near Gubbio (Photo: Marten Kuilman, May 2014).
The (biological) extinction got an extraterrestrial dimension, pointing to a comet or meteorite, which had hit the earth. Did comets kill the Dinosaurs? was the cover story of the Time Magazine (No. 18; May 6, 1985). And the question still is: could this happen again? The answer is probably: yes. However, it is, from a geological point of view, highly unlikely that such an event will happen soon. The last great mass extinction was about eleven million year ago, wiping out some marine protozoan and molluscs. The one earlier, at the end of the Eocene (Tertiary), took place some 37 million years ago. The major marine extinctions occurred 440 My ago (Ordovician), 370 My (Late Devonian), 245 My (Permian), 216 My (Late Triassic) and 65 My ago at the Cretaceous terminal. So the actual happening of a worldwide catastrophe within our lifespan is remote.
It is, nevertheless, an interesting feature that the idea of an apocalypse – as a culmination of linear thinking – shifted its emphasis from a spiritual to a physical base, from God to iridium.
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SIMMONS GREENHILL, Eleanor (1954). The Child in the Tree. A Study of the Cosmological Tree in Christian Tradition. Pp. 323 – 371 in: Tradition: studies in ancient and medieval history, thought and religion. New York, Fordham University Press, Vol. X, 1954.
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