The Apocalypse, Then and Now
Gerona, Spain, Museu de la Catedral de Girona, Num. Inv. 7 (11)
Kingdom of León, most likely at the Tábara monestary; July 6th 975
[Fascimilie at UCSC: ND3361.R52 B43 2003]
The Girona Beatus is a 10th century illustrated manuscript of the Commentary on the Apocalypse by a Spanish monk, Saint Beatus of Liébana. A theologian and geographer, Beatus' commentary explained the Apocalypse as depicted in the Book of Revelations and its importance to the state of the Catholic church. The Girona Beatus is one of twenty-six surviving illustrated collections of his commentary, written by Senior and commissioned for Abbot Domingo. The colophon lists a nun named Ende as one of its illuminators, a rare example of a woman involved in book production.
Coming close to the new millennia (the eleventh century), the Apocalypse was a great concern for devout Christians of the time. Fearing for their lives and their faith, medieval Christians developed a morbid fascination with the Apocalypse. Beatus' commentary was an educational tool for better understanding of the important text, but soon evolved in meaning given Spain's geo-political history. Saint Beatus' message of the eternal church and its power in the face of great adversity was of particular interest to Spanish Christians dealing with invading Muslim forces.
The Book of Revelations has always garnered intense interest and fascination for its nightmarish imagery and fantastical narrative of destruction and triumph. As such, the illustration featuring the fight between the Dragon and the Winged Woman is one such depiction of the epic battle against God in the Apocalypse. With vivid colors depicting Heaven, Earth, and Hell, and the Dragon depicted in lurid detail, the Apocalypse's hellish imagery captivated Christian imagination.
Christian Spain and Islam
Spain, like Byzantium, held a precarious position in Christian Europe. During the 10th century, Muslim powers will make inroads into Catholic Spain establishing the Islamic Iberia. As such Catholic and Islamic powers would come head-to-head in direct contact on the Iberian Peninsula for the next 500 years until the Reconquista under Queen Isabella. However, within the Girona Beatus lies the cultural mixing common in the greater aspect of Spanish life under Muslim rule. Visigothic script incorporates Arabic script; and Islamic symbolism and design feature into the illustrations of the Girona Beatus.
Beatus of Liébana wrote the Commentaria In Apocalypsin in the 8th century. Saint Beatus spent a bulk of the text criticizing the illicit practices of the church and what he believed to be sins committed by other monks and the faithful, tarnishing its sinless veneer of the church. Same can be said of the Girona Beatus, which illustrates this text some three hundred years later under similar Muslim rule. The Girona Beatus makes more overt references to Islamic incursions not originally present in the original commentary. However, both the Girona Beatus and the original commentary reference Islam only in relation to the Christian's own failures to their faith. It is important to realize that any political motivations regarding either the Girona Beatus or the Commentaria In Apocalypsin are possibly secondary; and while the invading Muslims provided a convenient external threat to Christianity, there is a lack of evidence explicitly promoting any anti-Islamic agenda in the text. Within the Girona Beatus itself lies centuries of cross-cultural, artistic and religious interactions.
A Modern Apocalypse
THE APOCALYPSE: THE REVELATION OF SAINT JOHN THE DIVINE
San Francisco, CA; 1982
[Edition 65 of 150 at UCSC Special Collections: Z239. A75 1982b]
The Apocalypse: The Revelation of Saint John the Divine is the tenth book published by Arion Press. Printed in the fall of 1982, it is a collaboration between Andrew Hoyem and American pop artist Jim Dine. The Apocalypse features twenty-nine woodcut illustrations from the artist accompanying text from the Book of Revelations.
Since Beatus' commentary on the Apocalypse nearly a millennium earlier, illustrating the Apocalypse has been a continuous Christian tradition. Jim Dine approaches the beauty and horror of the Apocalypse with the same approach to many of his works, an expressionistic minimalism. A 20th century work of art, Jim Dine interprets the Apocalypse through motifs he's used throughout his career, where everyday images become symbols for greater meaning. His abstract illustrations become representative of the immense power behind the Book of Revelations.
The featured illustration of Dine's "The Beast" is a chaotic mass. What appears to the body of a horse evolves into a hectic swirl of crossing patterns and what appears to be a head. The head is shrouded in darkness, but the outline of a horrendous mouth is visible. The full nature of the Beast remains hidden, but the power of Jim Dine's illustration of the Beast lies in what is kept in the shadows, and not what is shown.
Continuing a Tradition
Illustrating the apocalypse has been a long lasting artistic tradition since Medieval times. The creators behind The Apocalypse: The Revelation of Saint John the Divine mention German Renaissance artist, Albrecht Dürer, and his Apocalypse illustrations as an influence for their project. As such, both the Girona Beatus and The Apocalypse are part of the same rich tradition of illustrating scenes from the Book of Revelations.
Yet at the same time the two books were produced under very different conditions. The realities of 10th century Spain differs drastically from 20th century United States, and so do the intentions behind each book. The Spanish Girona Beatus was made during a tumultuous period of Christian instability. Christians felt a real and imminent danger from competing faiths and internal strife and the Girona Beatus is littered with imagery that evokes the paranoid hysteria that was brewing in Spain at the time. Meanwhile, The Apocalypse is an attempt to emulate and modernize previous works on the Apocalypse; it is a modern inclusion into a centuries old tradition. More interested in the act and process of making it rather than the reactionary, politically motivated creation of the Girona Beatus.
The Apocalypse as a subject provides ample opportunity for a particular kind of creativity; a creativity that both the Girona Beatus and The Apocalypse share. That is the Book of Revelations features such a rich tapestry of awe-inspiring beauty and intensely chilling terror that to visualize its contents is to visualize all the spectrum of good and evil, reward and punishment that is key to the Christian faith. On one hand the Book of Revelations is famous for its nightmarish descriptions of multi-headed beasts, dragons, death, destruction, and all sorts of other nightmares. At the same time it presents rapturous visions of the Kingdom of Heaven: from a sea of glass to gates made of pearls. Visually speaking, the Book of Revelations provides some of the most amazing imagery in scripture. It is easy to understand then why the Apocalypse is such a popular subject for artists.
Castleman, Riva. "Apocalypse" MoMA. 18 (Autmun-Winter, 1994). p. 6-11. Web.
Guibas, Gabrial Roura i. Beatus of Liébana Codex of Gerona. Barcelona: M. Moleiro, 2004. Print.
Williams, John. The Illustrated Beatus: A Corpus of the Illustrations of the Commentary on the Apocalypse, vol I-III. Langhorne, PA: Harvey Miller Publishers, 1994. Print.