Apocalypse & the Book of Revelation
The word apocalypse means ‘revelation’ but is nowadays more usually associated with the idea of the end of the world. This comes from the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, which describes the final battle between God and Satan – Armageddon. In a period when the Christian Church provided the moral and social framework for society, and belief in Heaven and Hell was absolute, the story of the Apocalypse had a widespread influence on many aspects of medieval thought, culture and everyday life.
Many people could not read, so images and symbols were vital in communicating ideas and teachings. The visual imagery of the Book of Revelation is particularly vivid and symbolic, and was often re-used to refer to contemporary events. In the 12th century for example, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were seen by some as symbolising four stages in the history of the Church, and the Whore of Babylon has been associated with numerous notorious female characters throughout the medieval period and beyond.
Even in recent, less intensely religious, times, ideas associated with the Apocalypse remain embedded in modern culture. Numerous artworks and films reference the Book of Revelation, attesting to the power of its imagery. Examples include: L' Apocaliss illustrations (Giorgio de Chirico 1941), The Atomic Apocalypse (Linares Family 1983), Tree of Life (Kester, Hilario Nhatugueja, Fiel dos Santos and Adelino Serafim Maté 2004), the Omen films, and Pale Rider.
Altarpiece of the Apocalypse
These panels are from a triptych (work of art in three sections), probably an altarpiece, made in Hamburg, Germany, around 1380, by a craftsman known as Master Bertram (around 1345–1415). Altarpieces with scenes from the Book of Revelation are rare, but this example is illustrated with images from the Apocalypse. The triptych has 45 panels, each containing a scene – a layout derived from illuminated manuscripts. The inscriptions, from a mid-13th-century north German Apocalypse commentary, provide an interpretation of what each scene means.
Audio: Description of the altarpiece of the Apocalypse
Audio: Reading from the Book of Revelation
This reading is from Revelation 6: 1–8, the description of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Audio: Gregorian Apocalypse chants
The four sung prayers you can listen to here are all examples of Gregorian chant. Gregorian chant was traditionally sung by choirs in convents and monasteries. The Latin words of these chants, like the painted scenes on the altarpiece illustrated here, focus on events described in the Book of Revelation.
The Book of Revelation includes descriptions of a series of visions experienced by its author, including descriptions of a series of terrible and catastrophic events that befall humankind before ending with the final triumph of good over evil. From the time of the early Church onwards many Christians believed that the end of the world was close at hand. The chants you can listen to here are still universally sung in monasteries world-wide and wherever the Latin chant is still used.
This recording was made by the Royal College of Music especially for the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries thanks to an award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Supported by The BAND Trust.