For my special subject ‘The Monster in Medieval Culture’ I gave a presentation on the monstrosity within medieval apocalypse manuscripts – you would expect the end of all days to be pretty monstrous right? But in my study of the illuminations I found their presentation of the Revelation to be much more complex…
Monstrous Bodies in Illuminated Apocalypses
The monstrous bodies of the illuminated Apocalypses of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries are simultaneously physical representations of the Revelation and an imaginative depiction of all the evils of the contemporary medieval world: the Jews, Tartars and heretics; the Kings who have abused their power; and all men who have sinned. With prophecies that the end of the world was nigh, such as Joachim of Foire’s prediction that the Apocalypse was due in 1260, and contemporary fears that the enemies of Christendom were amassing, there was an increased productivity of illuminated Apocalypse Manuscripts, including two of the most richly decorated: the Douce Apocalypse c.1265-70 and the Trinity Apocalypse c.mid1250s.
The most monstrous bodies of these Apocalypses are the Dragon, who is Satan; the Beast, who is the Antichrist and the damned reprobates, who are the human enemies of the church. The monsters all have animalistic qualities: The reprobates, or the enemies of the church, are animalistic in their appearance, often shown with hooves or horns. In the presentation of these enemies of the church there are also often anti-Semitic characteristics, such as hooked noses and funnel hats. This infiltration of anti-Semitism demonstrates how the monstrous bodies in illuminated Apocalypses were often conflated with contemporary prejudices and fears.
The Dragon and the Antichrist have the most monstrous bodies and are thus depicted in more animalistic terms: the Dragon is an elaboration of the serpent that is Satan and is made more monstrous by its seven heads. Likewise the Beast that is Antichrist is made more monstrous by its seven heads, and by being an amalgam of different exotic and frightful animals: a leopard with lion heads and bear feet.
One of the key themes of the iconography is the presentation of regal symbols associated with the monsters. There is a powerful pictorial theme of majesty associated with the principal monsters of the Apocalypse: both the Dragon and the Beast wear diadems or crowns and a sceptre is shown as an emblem of their power, exemplified in the Trinity Apocalypse scene of the passing of the power. This shows how evil was represented by society’s concepts of hierarchy and authority, perhaps alluding to dictators of the time, thereby making the animalistic monsters more threatening.
Deborah Strickland has observed that the iconography of the Apocalypses reflects contemporary social and political issues, which is clearest in the depiction of the siege by the damned on the Holy Land, the monstrous armies of Gog and Magog led by Antichrist are shown physically attacking Jerusalem; the contemporary conflicts of the Crusades thus combine with the exegetic.
The monstrous bodies represented in these Apocalypses – the Devil, the Antichrist and the reprobates – enhance and inform the reading of the Revelation whilst also representing the fears of contemporary medieval culture. The monstrous bodies are both the real enemies of the church and the evil beasts of the Apocalypse and thus these images present figures with the physiognomy and iconography of the Devil, the Antichrist, and their evil servants to create monstrosities of a fearful and complex allegorical and representational nature.
If you want to read about other presentations on the monstrous in the middle ages visit my class’ blog canterbury monsters