Terrifying visions of the Apocalypse revealed the fears of medieval Spain

Written as Islam swept across the Iberian Peninsula, the Silos Apocalypse, a 10th-century illuminated manuscript, depicts biblical visions of the end of the world.

By Monica Walker Vadillo
Published 15 Oct 2021, 22:08 BST
Battle for the heavens
One of the most dazzling compositions in the Silos Apocalypse recounts a great battle in heaven in which the archangel Michael battles the red dragon, as described in the verses of Revelation 12.

The word “apocalypse” conjures images of the destruction of the Earth, and the end of time itself. In the early medieval period, the year 1000 was believed to herald the end-time. As it loomed ever closer, apocalyptic visions occupied the minds of Christian Europe.

A miniature from the 12th-century Silos Apocalypse shows four demons surrounding a wealthy man with the archangel Michael above.
Photograph by British Library, London

For Christians living in the eighth century in what is now Spain, the visions were intensified by the cataclysmic events sweeping through the Iberian Peninsula. Those events inspired a monk, Beatus, to write a commentary on the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament that vividly describes how the end-time will unfold. Beatus’s work spread through Europe, and went on to inspire some of the most richly illustrated manuscripts of the medieval age.

(These biblical queens played crucial roles in the rise and fall of ancient Israel.)

Beatus, whose name means “the blessed one,” lived and worked in northern Spain in highly turbulent times. In 711, two decades before his birth, Berber armies from North Africa brought the new faith of Islam into southern Spain. These Muslim forces rapidly toppled the local Christian Visigoth leaders.

One of the few Christian-controlled territories that remained was a mountainous strip in the north, comprising the duchy of Cantabria and the new kingdom of Asturias. Beatus probably grew up in Muslim-controlled regions of Spain and fled to the Christian north.

The beast from the abyss in Revelation 13 is illustrated in the 12th century here from the Silos Apocalypse.
Photograph by British Library, London

Accounts of Beatus’s life attest to his erudition. He served as the confessor of the daughter of Alfonso I, the king of Asturias, and as abbot at the Abbey of Santo Toribio de Liébana, high in the Picos de Europa mountain range. There, he wrote his Commentary on the Apocalypse sometime between 776 and 784.

Reflection of the times

Beatus’s commentary presents the biblical Book of Revelation. It was authored on the Greek island of Patmos by a man who called himself John. Tradition holds that this writer is the Apostle John, Jesus’ beloved disciple who is credited with writing the biblical Gospel of John. Modern scholars argue that the author was most likely another John, possibly a preacher from Ephesus, who composed the work around A.D. 90. In the Book of Revelation an angel reveals to John how the end of the world will unfold: The destruction of the Earth is followed by a final battle between the forces of heaven and hell. The book concludes with a Christ enthroned in majesty following the Last Judgment.

Light fills the altar of the church of the Abbey of Santo Toribio de Liébana in Cantabria, northern Spain, where Beatus wrote his Commentary on the Apocalypse in 784.
Photograph by Paul Quayle/Alamy

The Book of Revelation has always been a controversial book among Christians because of the ambiguity of its language and the complexity of its symbolism. From the fourth century on, when it was included in the canon of the Bible in the Western church, numerous church fathers and theologians used it to predict when the world would come to an end, based largely on this passage: “When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth” (Revelation 20:7-8).

At the time the Book of Revelation was written, Christians living in Rome had suffered severe persecution under Emperor Domitian, who reigned a.d. 81-96, and Emperor Nero, who ruled 13 years before. By marking the end of the age of temporal power and announcing the beginning of God’s eternal kingdom, Revelation offered a message of hope. Surrounded by Muslim armies nearly 700 years later, Beatus and his fellow Christians found the same hopeful message in the themes of Revelation.

(Rome’s hardball politics were off-limits to women, yet Agrippina won power for herself and her son, Nero.)

Reliefs depict scenes related to the Passion of Christ in the cloister of the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos near Burgos in northern Spain. The lavish illustrations of the Silos version of Beatus’s commentary were completed here in 1109.
Photograph by Leiva/Fototeca 9X12

At the time of Beatus’s birth around 730, Muslim troops were relentlessly advancing northward, pushing over the Pyrenees and deep into France. In 750, when Beatus was about 20, the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus was toppled by the Abbasid dynasty. Fleeing the new rulers, an Umayyad heir, Abd ar-Rahman, came to Spain and overthrew the existing Muslim regime in the south. He created his capital at Córdoba, later to become one of the biggest and most cultured cities in Europe. The arrival of Abd ar-Rahman consolidated the power of Muslim Spain. The Christians of Asturias and Cantabria had to dig in for the long haul.

Beatus’s commentary reflects internal struggles among Spanish Christian communities during the rise of Muslim Córdoba. A highly orthodox thinker, Beatus used his work to express opposition to the teaching of Elipandus, the archbishop of Muslim-controlled Toledo. Elipandus was a supporter of “Adoptionism,” the belief that in order for Jesus to have the attribute of humanity as well as divinity, it was necessary for him to have been the adopted son of God.

An illustration of an angel and St. John from Silos Apocalypse.

Controversial beliefs could be seen as grave threats to Christian unity. Beatus’s work references Elipandus’s dangerous beliefs alongside the Muslim invasion. He seems to equate them with the kinds of heresies that would set in motion the end of the world as described in the Book of Revelation. In his view, Beatus predicted that the catastrophic events that would bring about the end-time would fall in A.D. 800.

(Christianity’s origins are found in many places, including Egypt, where Coptic Christianity flourished shortly after the death of Jesus.)

Illuminations

The Commentary on the Apocalypse consists of twelve books in which the original text of Revelation is transcribed in Latin (a section known as the storia) followed by an explanation (explanatio). Also included are selections from earlier scholarly interpretations (interpretatio) written by Christian thinkers such as Jerome and Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries.

After his death, Beatus’s commentary became popular in one monastic community after another. Between the 10th and 13th centuries lavishly illustrated versions, known as Beatus Apocalypses, were created. About 27 of these illustrated versions have survived to today.

An illustration of St. John gripping a spiral-topped staff.

Most copies were made in northern Spain in the Mozarabic manner: a highly coloured, geometric style that borrowed from Arab and Islamic art. In the 11th century monks of the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos (near Burgos, northern Spain) created one of the most splendid: the Silos Apocalypse. Dominico and Munnio began the texts and some illustrations, but their work halted on April 18, 1091. It was not until 1109 that a third monk, Petrus, completed the astonishing illustrations: Human figures are depicted with bodies in profile and heads face-on. Their distinctive wide-eyed expressions, bring the strange texts of Revelation to vivid life.

The use of fine parchment, as well as gold and silver for the text and illustrations, made the Silos Apocalypse a luxury object. In the early 1800s, it was acquired by Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Joseph perhaps while he served as king of Spain (1808-1813). Joseph Bonaparte sold this edition to the British Library in 1840, where it is held to this day.

Beginning of the end

Revelation's battle between the forces of heaven and hell resonated strongly in the Christian enclaves of northern Spain, where Beatus completed his Commentary on the Apocalypse in 784. Details from the Silos Apocalypse display the intensity and vibrance of the Mozarabic artistic style that conveys the destruction unleashed. God possesses a scroll bound by seven seals. As each seal is opened by the Lamb (representing Christ), a catastrophic event occurs, such as the arrival of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse—Conquest, War, Famine, and Death.

(These 15th-century maps show how the apocalypse will go down.)

Uncommon visions, common fears 

The everyday fears of medieval Europeans found their way into the illustrations featured in the surviving 27 illustrated Beatus Apocalypses. A vivid scene from the ninth chapter of Revelation describes how locusts emerge from the bottomless pit when an angel sounds its horn. In the Silos Apocalypse, the “fallen star” who unlocks the “shaft of the Abyss” can be seen as a human figure near the bottom of the image. Out of the void rises vibrant orange locusts that torment those who have turned from God. Medieval Europeans feared crop-destroying swarms of pests, especially in times of war when food security was of the utmost importance. The agony of the tormented could therefore be understood by comparing everyday agricultural fears with the terrors of the Apocalypse to come.

The everyday fears of medieval Europeans found their way into the illustrations featured in the surviving 27 illustrated Beatus Apocalypses. A vivid scene from the ninth chapter of the Book of Revelation describes how locusts emerge from the bottomless pit when an angel sounds its horn. In the Silos Apocalypse, the “fallen star” who unlocks the “shaft of the Abyss” can be seen as a human figure at the bottom of the frame.

Divine testimony

The commentary likens the Antichrist to a heretic who will destroy the community of the Christian faithful. In one episode the beast rises from the pit and kills the two heavenly appointed witnesses, which scholars believe could have resonated strongly in an Iberian Peninsula overwhelmed by Muslim armies. 

In the mid-ninth century, some 50 years after Beatus’s death, scores of executions of Christians took place in the Umayyad capital of Córdoba. The Silos Apocalypse was completed in the early 12th century, making it likely that these events coloured the depictions of the righteous witnesses being killed. A Silos depiction shows decapitation being used to strike down the witnesses. They are killed with a sword, the method described by the chroniclers of the Córdoba martyrdoms.

Call of Babylon

Revelation presents the city of Babylon as the antagonist of Christ, God, and his people. In the text, the city is personified as the “Whore of Babylon,” who has made all nations complicit in her immorality. Seduced by the wine of this woman, the inhabitants of the Earth are led to perdition. When the Book of Revelation was written in circa A.D. 98, Babylon may have been a symbol for Rome, whose extensive persecution of Christians under Emperor Domitian had earned it the ire of Christians. By the ninth to 12th centuries, when the illustrated versions of Beatus’s commentary were being produced, Spanish Christians associated Babylon with the power of Muslim Córdoba. The Silos Apocalypse artists, when depicting the architecture of Babylon, used distinctly Islamic features, including rounded arches, in their work.

An angel appears over Babylon, which the artists of the Silos Apocalypse depict with Islamic architectural elements.
Revelation 17: “One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.’ Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery: Babylon the great, the mother of prostitutes, and of the abominations of the earth.”

Apocalypse now and then

Christ defeats Satan and chains him in the Abyss, where he will stay for a thousand years. For Beatus, writing his commentary in the late eighth century, the prediction that Satan would break free after a thousand years reinforced the idea that Christian Spain, beset by the forces of Islam, was approaching the Apocalypse. Beatus (who died in 798) predicted the world would end in 800, basing his calculation not on the thousand years that elapse from the time of Christ, but on the termination of six millennia since Creation. The Silos artists who illuminated his work three centuries later, had already lived through the millennium. Although apocalyptic zeal had faded by then, their depictions have lost none of the fiery urgency of Beatus’s vision.

New beginnings

Following Christ’s triumph over the beast, the Last Judgment must take place during which all the dead will be resurrected and judged. The splendid illustration of the Last Judgment in the Silos Apocalypse, completed in the early 12th century, reveals how expectations about the end-time among Spanish Christians were changing. Since the year 1000 had passed decades before without incident, Christians were beginning to accept that the fiery destruction of the Earth might not happen in their lifetime. There was a shift to a reflection on their natural death, and the divine judgment that eventually awaited them as individuals.

A magnificent, full-color version of the Last Judgment in the Silos Apocalypse reveals a monastic vision of the world after the millennium had passed.
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