The Apocalypse manuscripts of the Middle Ages are timeless classics among art lovers, just as they were treasured by the artists who created them. The Book of Revelation is indeed one of the most fascinating works in the Western cultural canon. Its cryptic imagery has always captivated theologians, historians, art historians, literary scholars, philosophers, and many more.

For medieval book artists and miniaturists, the visual implementation of the unusually terrifying narrative was a way to fully develop their creativity and artistic freedom by designing images that under other circumstances would have drawn accusations of blasphemy. The apocalypse is every artist's dream with its smorgasbord of fantastic beings, mysterious numerology, and fascinating symbolism. Both anonymous Carolingian masters and well-known artists such as Albrecht Dürer were captivated by the special charm of the text. Apocalypse manuscripts were produced from the 8th century up through the Renaissance and the beginning of the printing age. Almost all of the artistic styles and epochs of the European Middle Ages are represented thereby. In the 8th century, the Spanish monk Beatus von Liébana wrote a commentary on the Apocalypse that was extremely widespread and forms a separate sub-genre of the text tradition with 27 surviving manuscripts.

A juxtaposition of the different manuscripts and their miniature cycles is particularly instructive in the case of the Apocalypse. Since the images follow the same text and the program of the scenes depicted was relatively fixed, the differences between the various art-historical epochs, styles, and production sites can be recognized and tracked in a particularly clear manner. To this day, Apocalypse manuscripts are among the most valuable and sought-after artifacts of medieval illumination.

Demonstration of a Sample Page

Gulbenkian Apokalypse

The First Horseman

In the Book of Revelation, the Seven Seals unleash a series of cataclysms: “Now I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals; and I heard one of the four living creatures saying with a voice like thunder, ‘Come and see’. And I looked, and behold, a white horse. He who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer.” (Rev. 6:1-2)

This fine miniature uses various patterns and gold leaf to give a timeless and spaceless feel to the naturally depicted figures, a typical aesthetic of Apocalypse manuscripts. The white horse looks forward with a stern countenance, front hoof raised like a warhorse on parade while the rider looks out from the page with a neutral expression as though resigned to his mission.