Monk’s Beatus Apocalypses Warned of The End of the World
Based on interpretations of the Book of Revelations, the Commentary on the Apocalypses, written between 776 and 784 by visionary monk Beatus of Liébana, were a series of manuscripts that foretold the end of the world. Produced deep into the Islamic conquest of Spain in the 8th century, the apocalyptic themes were fervently reinforced by the contemporary destruction of Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula by warriors of Islam.
From the 8th to the 13th centuries, numerous copies of the Beatus Apocalypses were produced all over Europe, with 27 of them surviving today, the oldest version being a fragment from the 9th century from the Abbey of Santo-Domingo de Silos, and the most recent from the 13th century known as the Berlin Beatus.
A typical Commentary contained 108 canonical images, 7 images relating to a text, 14 pages of diagrams outlining the genealogy of Christ, 11 illustrations for the commentary on Daniel, as well as a rebuttal of Adoptionism, a heretical Christian idea first propounded by the Archbishop of Toledo that viewed Jesus as only the adopted Son of God.
One of the most outstanding features were the vivid colors of the illuminations crafted in the Mozarbic style, which represented an assimilation of Christian and Islamic motifs developed after the Arabic invasion of Spain in 711.
The principal purpose of the illustrations and texts was to warn the faithful about the end of the world, which, through a series of complex calculations, would happen in the year 800 or 1000 AD according to Beatus. Additional anti-Muslim imagery and Adoptionist critiques served only to strengthen Beatus’ apocalyptic message.
The time of Beatus was the early days of the Moorish conquest of Iberia and the threat to Christianity at that time was at its most intense. Northeastern al-Andalus, the Pyrenees, and southern Gaul at the time of the Berber rebellion (739–742 AD). (Iñaki LLM / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Doomsday Prophet Monk Beatus, and Moorish Conquest
The Beatus Apocalypses were highly influenced by events happening around their author, Beatus, who was from the far-northern Cantabria province of Spain. Beatus, born in 730 and died in 785 AD, experienced the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century firsthand.
Following the Umayyad Caliphate’s capture of North Africa from 705, the Damascus-based rulers set their eyes on further prospects, reaching an agreement with the Christian ruler of Ceuta, Count Julian, to launch a joint invasion of the Iberian Peninsula . In 711 as pretext for invasion, the Umayyad armies crossed the Gibraltar Straits with the official purpose of killing a usurper king named Roderick for their Visigothic faction. In July, they defeated Roderick, but instead of turning back they continued to ransack other Spanish cities, bringing Toledo, Merida, and Zaragoza under Muslim control, and by 714 most of Spain was a Muslim dominion given the name Al-Andalus.
At risk of persecution and death, most of the native population converted to Islam in order to please their new Arab overlords and to reap the benefits of economic perks such as reduced taxes. Between 711 and 756, the new Muslim province was generally called the dependent Emirate period, being reliant on the patronage and support of the Umayyad Caliphate back in Syria. In 732, the period of expansion was abruptly ended after a Muslim defeat to a Frankish army under Charles Martell, and it was around this time, in the year 730, that Beatus of Liébana was born, in the Christian Kingdom of Asturias in the northwest, the only remaining Christian stronghold in the area.
In 756, following the slaughter of the Umayadd caliphate and the ascension of the Abbasids to the throne, the Islamic leadership of Spain would change hands to Abn-ibn-Rahmān, a Umayyad who was able to flee the executions of his family and establish a power base on the Iberian Peninsula, initiating what historians call the independent Emirate period from 756 to 929.
During Abn-ibn-Rahmān I’s reign, internal rebellion was brutally crushed as the new ruler dealt with Abbasid intrigues to the east as well as Christian incursions to the north from the Kingdom of Asturias, and via France by legendary warrior-monarch, Charlemagne. In 778, at the same time Beatus was penning his apocalyptic texts, Charlemagne was defeated at the battle of Roncesvalles, the rear guard of his army reportedly being completely obliterated by Muslim defenders. Such an event would have given Beatus even less hope of a Christian reconquest of Spain, as even the most esteemed general of his age was unable to liberate the unfortunate Christians subjected to foreign rule.
For the rest of Beatus’ life, until his death in 798, the majority of Spain would continue to be the possession of the Umayyad caliphate , whose rule would only increase in savagery.
The oldest extant manuscript of Beatus’ work is the Silos Apocalypse, faithfully copied in the 12th century AD, which painted a vision of God before the opening of the 7th seal. ( Public domain )
Islamic Invaders and the End Times
To Beatus and his Christian contemporaries, the apocalyptic imagery of the texts and illuminations drew heavily on the Muslim conquest of Spain, which, to many, represented the fulfillment of the prophecies and predictions of The Book of Revelation, first penned around 95 AD.
In one image, God appears with a scroll and 7 seals, each representing a catastrophic disaster once opened. One signifies the arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse , namely War, Famine, Pestilence and Death. In another, a swarm of orange locust are released, tormenting all those who have turned away from God. Such illustrations of fiery perdition reflected the common fear of the Muslim invaders, who were seen as agents of Satan and the apocalypse.
In one depiction, a monster rises from a pit, killing two angelic witnesses, and in another a sword decapitation scene is depicted. They represented the Muslim slaughter of Christians, with the latter image referencing the Cordoba martyrdoms, where scores of Christians were struck down with eastern blades.
The image of an Islamic rider, surrounded by nightmarish beasts and monsters , represented the foreign persecutors attacking and murdering followers of Christ, with the animal figures accompanying the horseman illustrating the brave Christians holding their faith. Moreover, throughout the Commentary, the anti-Christ figure, who in one image is seen leading an attack on a group of Christians, is commonly depicted with an Eastern headdress, an item of clothing strongly associated with stereotypically evil Eastern characters such as Nebuchadnezzar, an infamous king of Babylon.
In the text, there are several references to the ancient city of Babylon, characterized as the “Whore of Babylon,” a symbol of immorality which quickly became associated with the Muslims of Cordoba who ruled the region. It’s no surprise that the pictorial representations of this city of questionable morals abound with distinctly Islamic architectural details such as rounded arches.
The world map from the Saint-Sever Beatus measuring 37 X 57 cm. This was painted c. 1050 as an illustration to Beatus' work at the Abbey of Saint-Sever in Aquitaine, on the order of Gregori de Montaner, Abbot from 1028 to 1072. (Beatus of Liébana / Public domain )
International Influences in the Beatus Apocalypses
The influences evident in the Beatus Apocalypses attest to the increasing international world of the Middle Ages, as the manuscript visually included features of buildings found in Spain and all over Europe.
A folio depicting a single arcade has been attributed to the church of San Miguel de Escalada in the modern Spanish province of León. Outside of Spain, the gold-leaf cross featured in an image of the Holy Lamb and two angels strongly resembled the cross of the Saint-Martin de Tours Monastery located in France, and the image of the three Magi paralleled the image of St Paul at St Anselm’s Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral, England.
One of the most famous images in the Beatus Apocalypses is that of a world map, which has been recognized as one of the most important examples of medieval cartography. It was based off the works of Tyconius, a North African theologian, and English philosopher Orosius, and a wide-range of other ancient international writers are also referenced within the tome. Additional curiosities, such as the appearance of a fourth continent said to be situated at the edge of the known world and the division of the map into three “ecumene,” an ancient Greek system that categorized the globe into three areas, all came from Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae.
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The artistic style of the illuminations derived from Carolingian as well as Islamic sources. The tiny script, interlaced initials, figure illustrations, and rubrication were all techniques used by Carolingian monasteries to craft manuscripts, and the partiality to geometric architectural designs suggested a notable Islamic bent.
Later versions, from the 12th and 13th centuries, utilized Byzantine and French Court artistic styles, as many Commentaries were issued under the patronage of kings and queens. In fact, the latest Beatus manuscript has an obvious Gothic influence, a methodology that incorporated pointed arches, tabbed vaults, and ornate decoration that originated in England and France. An Italian version from the 12th century, named the Berlin Beatus, possesses an image of an enthroned kind touching the heads of a group of men that is not recognizable in any other medieval art form.
Influences were to be found even further afield than Europe and the Middle East. One of the most common motifs in the Beatus Apocalypses is of a bird fighting a snake which appears in five versions of the manuscript, typically at the end of a genealogy of Christ. Revealing the story, the text speaks about a battle between Christ and an oriental bird, with the Son of God prevailing. It’s likely that the imagery here originated from an ancient Indian tale about a divine bird fighting an evil snake from a text called the Physiologus, a collection of Christian stories with animals.
Vision of the Lamb, the four cherubim and the 24 elders from the Facundus-Beatus. (Facundus / Public domain )
The Spiritual Assault: Anti-Adoptionism
The third edition of the Beatus Apocalypses produced in 786 AD transformed them into a political work with Beatus’ inclusion of an icy polemic against the archbishop Elipandus of Toledo who professed a belief in adoptionism, a heretical Christian train of thought which argued that Jesus Christ in human form was only the adopted son of God.
The heresy stemmed from the teachings of a Christian priest called Migetus, an authoritative teacher of bishops and papal legates, who argued that David from the Old Testament should be considered the first person of the Holy Trinity as Jesus was a descendant of David, and that St Paul should be identified as the third person of the Trinity since Jesus had instructed the saint to spread the truth, leaving Jesus as only the second person to constitute the Trinity. Enraged by the demystification and humanization of the Holy Trinity, Elipandus of Toledo was tasked with riposting the controversial ideas in a published work entitled the Creed of Seville.
However, in the process of rebuttal the archbishop developed his own heretical hypotheses, which were formulated with the help of Félix of Urgel, who advised Elipandus that although Jesus Christ should be considered the spiritual Son of God, he was not the human Son of God, having only been adopted by the Holy Father.
Beatus, alerted to the new heresy, and a staunch advocate of orthodox Christianity, sent a seething letter of condemnation to the archbishop which attempted to disprove his claims. The arrogant Elipandus, extremely offended, responded with his own cutting words:
“Yet never has it been heard that someone from Liébana taught a Toledan [...] It is known to all people that Sacred Doctrine clearly has its beginnings in this See, and it never puts forth anything schismatic. And now a fetid sheep desires to be our teacher.”
In a furious example of medieval name-calling, Elipandus went on to call Beatus an acolyte of the anti-Christ who enjoyed the forbidden pleasures of prostitutes and bestiality. In reaction, Beatus published an account entitled the ‘Apologeticum’ which also portrayed Elipandus of Toledo as the anti-Christ, disobedient to God’s word in John 2:22 which stated:
“All who believe that Jesus is not the Son of God are liers and, therefore, the Antichrist.”
Beatus was particularly concerned that the Adoptionism idea was part of the Muslim effort to overthrow Christianity, and he situated the doctrine as a further Muslim invasion of the spiritual realm. By humanizing Jesus Christ, the archbishop had unwittingly made Mohammed his equal as both were seen by their respective followers as human.
Beatus received overwhelming support from other Christians for his castigations and was able to get the Iberian and Frankish bishops to speak against Elipandus of Toledo, damaging him politically. In addition, a host of other highly respected contemporary authors, namely Paulinus of Aquilaea, Theodulph of Orléans, Benedict of Aniane, Alcuin of York and Richbod of Trier, all published refutations of Adoptionism.
Beatus subsequently published large extracts of his Apologeticum in the Apocalypses, often directly copying the passages. The equation of Elipandus with the Anti-Christ helped further reinforce and expand upon the same menacing figure depicted in the illustrations and texts of the Commentary.
Like the much earlier prophecies found in The Book of Revelation (95 AD; pictured here), Beatus’ original plan was to warn Christians of an impending apocalypse or apocalypses, but so far neither prophecy has come true. Frontispiece, Book of Revelation, Bible of San Paolo fuori le Mura, from the 9th century AD. ( Public domain )
Another False Prophet…
Beatus’ original plan for the Commentaries was a document that would warn Christians of the impending apocalypse, which Beatus believed would happen a 1000 years after the events of revelation when Satan would once again be released from his chains.
However, as the years 800 and 1000 passed without any significant end of time events to show for, the sting of Beatus ominous message was lessened, and his Commentary was repurposed for other, more peaceful pursuits.
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Mentré has pointed to the meditative uses of the Commentaries after 1000, as the bright and unnatural colors of the images disturbed natural human perception, helping contemplatives remove their physical association with the world, encouraging a higher level of introspection. Elsewhere, later copies would be produced for the royal courts of Europe who appreciated the Apocalypses as an artistic endeavor rather than as a prophetical document.
The Book of Revelation which the Commentary was based on, supposedly written by John the Disciple in 90 AD on the Greek island of Patmis, was a vision of the end times that would culminate in the ultimate showdown between Heaven and Hell, where Christ would be enthroned in the Last Judgement.
At the time of its writing, The holy words of the Book were a source of hope for downtrodden Christians who had experienced constant persecution under the Roman emperors Domitian and later Nero. Equally, with the rise of the Muslim threat, Beatus also hoped his manuscript could shed the same light for his fellow Christians who were being similarly abused, this time by the powerful rulers of Islam.
Top image: A detail from the Urgell Beatus, depicting the Siege of (Christian) Jerusalem by Nebudchadnezzar, which was threat to Christianity as was the Moorish Islamic takeover of most of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century AD, when monk Beatus' work was so popular. Source: Public Domain
By Jake Leigh-Howarth
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