It’s nearly Halloween, and accompanying days of All Saints and All Souls, so in many parts of the world people have been gearing up for the night by watching horror films, procuring masks and makeup, and generally revelling in the monstrous and terrifying. However, the thrill of pondering pure terror is nothing new, and medieval manuscript illustrations can be filled with grotesque images which accompany one of the most durable sources of horror in the Western heritage: the end of the world. While today we have zombies, plagues, or nuclear winter, which are directly caused by human folly, our medieval predecessors had acts of God visited upon the world in response to human sin.
The Book of Revelation and the Vision of St. Paul are contained in CCCC MS 20, a richly illustrated apocalypse from the early 14th century, with 106 pictures interspersed throughout the Anglo-Norman and Latin text. The content and style of the Anglo-Norman illustrated apocalypse developed in the 13th century, when theologians were concerned with the nature of eternity and history, and how they were related to the Bible. If the universe and the Bible were both authored by God, then understanding one meant a better understanding of the other, and a trend arose of attempting to match current events with Biblical ones. With the Apocalypse so prominent in people’s minds, stand-alone, heavily illustrated copies of the visions of the end of the world became popular in England. The illustrations shown here are just a tiny portion of the art in MS 20, all of which can be seen on Parker on the Web.
All images are the property of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Unauthorised use is prohibited.