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Alice White EN646: Image, Vision & Dream Seminar Leader: Sarah James

Vision and the Medieval Apocalypse

The Book of Revelation contains some of the most vivid images in the Bible, and provided illuminators with rich subject material to create vibrant manuscripts. This may be a factor which explains the popularity of illustrated apocalypse manuscripts during the Middle Ages. In this essay I will explore the idea of seeing and vision, and different concepts of the role of the image and illustration. The Book of Revelation is excellent material for examining textual and visual representations of the same concept, since during the Middle Ages apocalypse manuscripts frequently included both a commentary and illustrations. The collection of manuscripts which have come to be known the Beatus manuscripts contain a commentary assembled by Beatus of Libana, and most 13th century English apocalypses contain a version of the Berengaudus commentary. Similarly, most examples of the above manuscripts also carry a set of accompanying illustrations. This demonstrates how far the illuminations were considered an integral part of the manuscript as a whole just as much as the commentaries. Like the commentaries, the illustrations were there to advance the readers understanding of the text of the Book of Revelation, and yet the use of images has proved far more contentious than that of the commentary. Both during the Middle Ages and today, the role of images is controversial; the very fact that the role of the image was such a significant point of debate indicates its importance and the value accorded to the image. The relationship between text and image is not a straightforward one. A modern suspicion of the image may stem from a vague conception of the image as an area of resistance to meaning1, whereas words are considered to impart meaning. Similarly, those who argued against the use of images during the many heated debates over the role of image in the Middle Ages proposed that they confused the viewer, suggesting that they caused idol worship because the
1 Roland Barthes, Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath (Fontana, 1977), p. 32

Alice White EN646: Image, Vision & Dream Seminar Leader: Sarah James viewer misunderstood the meaning behind the image and worshiped the image rather than what it represented. The concept of representation is particularly crucial to an understanding of the role of the image, and this can be seen in regard to images in apocalypse manuscripts. Barthes has put it that the image is re-presentation, which is to say resurrection.2 This implies that it is a copy of a real original, however medieval understanding of image was linked with entomology; image was understood in terms of the Latin similitude as being a species or likeness.3 In the Middle Ages, popular theories of vision suggested that everything which was seen was a copy of a real original, as intromission theories of vision suggested that seeing occurred when a ray or species (likeness) was transmitted from an object to the eye. If what is seen is merely a likeness of the original object that it represents, images in manuscripts arguably played a similar role to text. Foucault writes that when it was given to men by God himself, language was an absolutely certain and transparent sign for things, because it resembled them.4 Images in the Middle Ages are like language following the fall of Babel and the loss of this original transparent language: both are a species or likeness and not an exact representation of the original. The original text was the literary creation of the scripture which was created by God and passed to man. Creative representation of the originals such as that seen in the apocalypse commentaries or illustrations were secondary creations. Both re-present an original which cannot be replicated exactly and therefore seek to express its essence to the reader; only God had the ability to create, man could merely imitate. The Book of Revelation even contains the warning that if anyone adds anything to [the words in this book], God will add to him every plague in the book; if anyone cuts anything out of the prophecies in this book, God will cut off his share of the tree of life and of the holy city.5
2 Roland Barthes, Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath (Fontana, 1977), p. 32 3 Bernard McGinn, Johns Apocalypse and the Apocalyptic Mentality, Reading images : narrative discourse and reception in the thirteenth-century illuminated Apocalypse, Ed. Suzanne Lewis (Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 6 4 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: an Archaeology of the Human Sciences (Routledge, 2002), p. 40 5 Revelation 22: 18-19

Alice White EN646: Image, Vision & Dream Seminar Leader: Sarah James The Beatus Apocalypses and the 13th Century English Apocalypses both utilise an unrealistic image style, but the medieval attitude towards images as suggested in the concept of species may help to explain why colours in the Beatus manuscripts have no relationship to the natural world6 and why perspective is not important in 13th century apocalypse images; it is not important for the image to be realistic, only that it expresses the likeness of what is described. Since Revelation does not depict a world which resembles the natural world, but instead one filled with monsters and miracles and fantastical occurrences, the vivid colours and the sizing of characters by importance and not perspective are perhaps more suitable than any attempts at realism in the representation of something dramatic and almost beyond the imagination. During the Middle Ages, sight was considered to be the most important of the senses, following from Aristotelian thinking that it provided the greatest understanding of the world: sight is per se more valuable [in terms of the senses] so far as the needs of life are concerned.7 It would follow, therefore, that the image is used as an aid to understanding of the Book of Revelation. The Beatus Apocalypses generally contain around 90 images which vary only a little from book to book in terms of what they depict, and often take up whole pages. The images almost act as cartoon strips do today in terms of conveying the narrative, for instance in the Morgan Beatus the Revelation to Saint John is depicted in two stages, first with Christ talking to the angels and then with John approached to write (see Fig. 1). The Beatus manuscripts are written in an older style of Latin and perhaps the images closely following the narrative aided translation. It has been suggested that in northern Spain the Beatus Apocalypse text was memorised by monks and nuns, and so the images could have acted as a mnemonic device. Although not illiterate, the reader would then no longer require the text in order to elucidate the meaning of the Book of Revelation. Elizabeth Bolman suggests that colour changes in images of the plague bearing angels are one example of images being
Figure 1 God sends the Angel with the Book to John, Morgan Beatus, MS M.429 (Fol. 19v)

6 Mireille Mentr and Peter Klein as quoted in Elizabeth S. Bolman, De coloribus: The Meanings of Color in Beatus Manuscripts, Gesta (International Center of Medieval Art, 1999), p.26 7 Aristotle, De Sensu and De Memoria: Text and Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Edited by G. R. T. Ross (Cambridge University Press, 1906), p. 48

Alice White EN646: Image, Vision & Dream Seminar Leader: Sarah James used as a mnemonic device, by variation in the colouring of the angels clothes.8 This adherence to a conventional organisation of images also occurred in the 13th century English Apocalypses, to the extent that by the time the Angers Tapestries were being produced in 1373, the images became autonomous from text or commentary. The Apocalypse manuscript images perhaps suggest therefore that images could be used autonomously from the text as aids to spiritual reflection or meditation. Boethius Consolation of Philosophy, which was extremely popular and influential in the Middle Ages, argued the importance of cultivating the interior through piousness and spiritual reflection or meditation, as this was the only route to true happiness. Since most medieval readers would not be able to make a physical pilgrimage to Jerusalem, they are in the Apocalypse manuscripts provided with the opportunity to make a spiritual pilgrimage to the New Jerusalem by following the textual and pictorial journey of St. John. Both Beatus and English manuscripts refer to St. Johns presence on Patmos before the vision occurs; in presenting this the images demonstrate that although Johns physical comfort has been lost and his earthly status diminished with his exile from society, he grows spiritually and develops his interior life by becoming close to God. The images in the Apocalypse
Figure 2 The angel appears to St. John on the Island of Patmos, The Abingdon Apocaylpse, MS 42555 (Fol. 5r)

manuscripts depict John on an island, which is almost cartographic in

8 Elizabeth S. Bolman , De coloribus: The Meanings of Color in Beatus Manuscripts, Gesta (International Center of Medieval Art, 1999), p. 25

Alice White EN646: Image, Vision & Dream Seminar Leader: Sarah James representation, emphasising distance from society and physical comfort which suggests that the central life is the interior, spiritual life not the physical existence. It is because of his piousness that St. John is chosen to receive Gods vision. There were considered to have been three types of vision: corporeal, spiritual (ghostly) and intellectual. St. Johns vision is corporeal in that he perceives with his senses, and spiritual in that it is holy and issuing from God, and thus external, as seen in both the original text and the accompanying images. However, it is also internal in that it issued from the intellect of a visionary9, hence intellectual. John experiences his vision in a form of vision not accessible to most mortal men, and so the way in which this should be depicted is not immediately obvious. The Book of Revelation states that the Spirit possessed [St. John],10 but how John achieves this spiritual form of vision is represented in very different ways by different illustrators and over different times. For instance, in the Beatus manuscripts this has been suggested through the use of a line rising from the figure of John which lies prostrated at the base of the image, which culminates in a bird within the mandorla containing Christ. Since the author of the Book of Revelation was often considered to be the same John as John the Evangelist of the Gospel of John, this bird is perhaps the eagle which was the symbol used to represent John. An eagle is thought to be used because of the elevated style of St. Johns gospel which differs from the synoptic gospels in its discussion of the
Figure 3 In the Spirit, GeronaPerception Beatus, Archivo de la of the Apocalypse in the Later 9 Michael Camille, Visionary and Images catedral I (Fol. 107) Highlighting added by me to Middle Ages, Reading images : narrative discourse and reception in the thirteenthshow line illuminated more clearly. century Apocalypse, Ed. Suzanne Lewis, (Cambridge University Press, 1995)

p. 287

10 Revelation 4: 2

Alice White EN646: Image, Vision & Dream Seminar Leader: Sarah James nature of Christ, for instance as the word;11 St. John is able to see more highly than the other evangelists. In the visual representation of the Book of Revelation this symbol works both because of the original assumptions about authorship but also because it deals with the exalted theme of the last events on earth, judgement and the afterlife. John is told in the Book of Revelation Come up here: I will show you what is to come in the future.12 In the later manuscripts, including the Las Huelgas Apocalypse (dated 1220), St. Johns movement from earthly to spiritual vision is demonstrated through a physical movement from Patmos to the celestial court.
Figure 4 John receiving book and entering celestial vision, Las Huelgas Apocalypse, MS M.429 (Fol. 146v)

In the Selden Supra Apocalypse, this is achieved by climbing a ladder up to an angel in the clouds. In the Douce Apocalypse, this is shown by an angel carrying St. John upon his back up some stairs towards the celestial kingdom. In examples St. Johns eyes closely upon his the angel points towards importance and the move from terrestrial to

turreted both of these are focussed destination and it, indicating its emphasising the heavenly.

By suggesting the
Figure 5 John ascending to witness celestial vision, MS Selden Supra 38 (Fol. 49r)

spiritual nature of the vision in this way, the

later English manuscripts express a physical boundary between heaven and earth. St. John physically traverses this boundary and thus continues to be bodily represented in the majority of images from
Figure 6 - John ascending to witness celestial vision, Douce Apocalypse, MS Douce 180 (p. 92)

the English Apocalypses. In the Beatus Manuscripts, by contrast, St. John no longer

appears after he has been represented moving from his bodily form to the

11 John 1:1 12 Revelation 4:1

Alice White EN646: Image, Vision & Dream Seminar Leader: Sarah James celestial. The earlier manuscripts represent what St. John saw, the later depcit St. John seeing what he saw. In English Apocalypses, the frequency of representations of St. John may have been because of the popularity of the hagiographical libellus, which had increased since they were introduced with the reformation of Benedictine abbeys in the 12th Century. Alternatively, St. Johns presence indicates not only that it is a vision, but that it is his vision and his intellect which has made the supernatural attainable to the readers humble human perception. His role is shown to be primarily that of visionary who has been selected by God, not merely a storyteller, imbuing him with a greater authority. St. John is then able to direct the vision of the reader to the important aspects of the text. This is instead done by the gaze of the angels and other characters in the Beatus Apocalypses. Their eyes are particularly noticeable, as the stark white of the eyes contrasts with the bold, bright colours used for the rest of the image. Because of this, the reader cannot help but be drawn to these contrasting areas and visually engage with the eyes of the characters depicted. This allows the image to be used as a mnemonic or aid to meditation, as it allows the viewer to connect with each character described in turn. For instance, in images of
Figure 7 - Facundus Beatus, Biblioteca Nacional, MS Vit. 14-2 (Fol. 117v)

Christ in majesty, the Christ figure is usually central, staring out at the

viewer and the first thing to be considered, worthy of latria, and following that the figures of the 24 Elders (the Prophets of the Old Testament and the Apostles of the New Testament) who only warrant dulia. This is sometimes indicated by the Elders eyes all being focussed upon Christ, as in the Saint-Sever Beatus (BN lat. 8878, fol. 121v-122r).

Alice White EN646: Image, Vision & Dream Seminar Leader: Sarah James In the Beatus of Libana, Christs importance is further demonstrated as he is placed beneath a horseshoe arch on a throne, with two angels brightly adorned in red at either side. Their gaze is directed outwards, thus the reader of the image connects first with Christ and only then moves to the angels, indicating the order of precedence. Vision is similarly used elsewhere to direct meditation. The four Living Beings, which are commonly represented as a man or angel, an ox, an eagle and a lion (the symbols of the four evangelists), are described as with many eyes, in front and behind.13 In many images in Beatus Apocalypses, they are depicted as covered in eyes all over their bodies or wings, which stare out at the reader, which focus attention on the characters of the four evangelists. In the case of the locust creatures sent to torture those without the mark of God, the victims are
Figure 8 - The Army Of Horsemen Over Lion-Headed Horses, Las Huelgas Apocalypse, MS M.429 (Fol. 94)

depicted with their eyes closed or averted, perhaps in order that the reader does not imagine a person but themselves in the place

of the figure, and also in order to emphasise the pain being experienced. The gaze was considered extremely powerful in the Middle Ages, and this can be seen in the depiction of St. John reacting to seeing the Whore of Babylon. He collects his robes about him as closely as possible and even pulls up his cloak to form a hood to protect his eyes further from the sight of her, an action which is not taken elsewhere even in the face of the beasts. Women were considered to be
13 Revelations 4: 7
Figure 9 - The Great Harlot of Babylon, Dyson Perrins Apocalypse, MS. Ludwig III 1, (Fol. 35v)

Alice White EN646: Image, Vision & Dream Seminar Leader: Sarah James objects of temptation, like Eve to Adam, and thus very dangerous to look upon, therefore St. John demonstrates his piousness and the correct way to avoid the temptation of lust in averting his eyes. The gaze of the woman is depicted as focussed upon her mirror, thus demonstrating her vanity and lust, which are commented upon in both text and commentary. There are instances of the defacing of Satan in the Beatus Apocalypses, which Williams suggests indicate the individuals close contact with the book and the power of the image as a pictorial gloss or commentary.14 But I would argue that an alternative theory is that the fear of the power of the image caused the reader to deface it. Intromission theories of vision imply that seeing an object involves a part of or likeness of that image being transmitted to the viewer. Suzanne Lewis suggests that this may contribute an explanation as to why religious images were so important in the Middle Ages; the icon of a saint created a visible species, the power of which could influence the viewer, such as the icon of St. Christopher giving the viewer protection. 15 It follows, therefore, that images of Satan would be erased or defaced in order to reduce their power over the viewer. Lewis suggests that the move from oral tradition to visual created a privacy which engendered mind wandering and speculation... no longer controlled by instant correction and that this caused the need to insulate the reader from such temptations to independently interpret the text by providing an accompanying textual and pictorial gloss.16 This glossing would be especially important in the 13th Century English Apocalypses, since they are thought to have been more a creation for the lay nobility (although some later Apocalypses belonged to nuns17). St. Johns journey through his apocalyptic vision to the end of the world and the triumph of God is accompanied by
14 John Williams, Purpose and Imagery in the Apocalypse Commentary of Beatus of Libana, The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages (Cornell University Press, 1992), p. 225
Figure 10 St. 15 Suzanne Lewis, Reading images : narrative discourse and reception in the thirteenthJohn with Staff, century illuminated Apocalypse (Cambridge University Press, 1995) p. 8 from The Harvest of Grapes MS. 16 Suzanne Lewis, Reading images : narrative discourse and reception in the thirteenthLudwig III 1, (Fol. century illuminated Apocalypse (Cambridge University Press, 1995) p. 3 29v)

17 Neil Morgan, Illustrated Apocalypses of Mid-thirteenth-century England: Historical Context, Patronage and Readership, The Trinity Apocalypse, Ed. David McKitterick (British Library, 2005) p. 13

Alice White EN646: Image, Vision & Dream Seminar Leader: Sarah James commentaries adapted from the Berengaudus commentary, which provides the reader with a textual spiritual guide. The pictorial gloss, I would argue, is often provided in St. Johns reaction to his sights. He acts as a guiding figure, not only leading the reader through a spiritual pilgrimage of the journey to the New Jerusalem, but also guiding them on the route in life that they must take to achieve a place in the New Jerusalem at the end of time. In some images, St. John carries a pilgrims staff to demonstrate this aspect of his role. In the image of the Whore of Babylon above, for instance, St. John demonstrates how to prevent the mind wandering to lustful thoughts when looking upon women, one should avert the eyes. The only real example of this in the Beatus Apocalypses is when St. John prostrates himself when in the presence of the Lamb of God, demonstrating the suitable way to worship him. God, and therefore the Trinity which represents God including the Lamb, is accorded the highest form of worship, called latria. This is demonstrated by St. John in his bowing down before God in this image. This is possibly because the Beatus manuscripts are thought to be a monastic artefact, created to stimulate the intellect for the spiritual development of the reader. They contain extensive glosses, demonstrative of the seriousness attributed to the texts. The reader would already
Figure 11 Detail of Facundus Beatus, Biblioteca Nacional, MS Vit. 14-2 (Fol. 117v)

therefore be accustomed to the correct way to worship, but perhaps desire more close analysis of the meaning behind the analogous text. In many of

the Beatus manuscripts, the images take up whole pages or even double page spreads (such as in the case of the miniature 47 in the Beatus of La Seu d'Urgell18), perhaps in order to provide pictorial glosses or focuses for meditation. Just as the British Library MS Egerton 1821 provided the reader with visual cues to contemplating the Passion, the Beatus apocalypse provided the reader with visual cues to contemplate the end of the world.

18 The Seven Headed Beast pursuing the Woman Clothed in the Sun and then being locked away. <>


Alice White EN646: Image, Vision & Dream Seminar Leader: Sarah James Evidence of depictions of how to worship can be seen more frequently in English apocalypses, where St. John, the four creatures and the angels and Elders are depicted performing gestures and acts of reverence towards Christ, such as bowing or raising their hands. This reflects the text in which reference is made to such reverence as well as verbal expressions such as signing praises of God, which cannot easily be visually depicted. Text and image work together in such representations to reinforce the devotion which should be shown to God by suggesting the many forms in which it can be expressed. As well as being shown bowed before God, in the English Apocalypses, St. John is also depicted being corrected for wrongly worshiping an angel who is not due the same reverence as God. The angel here raises St. Johns
Figure 12 - The angel refuses St. John's homage and tells him to worship God, MS. Auct. D. 4. 17 (Fol. 22r)

bowed head and indicates towards

the mandorla containing Christ in order to demonstrate where his worship should be directed instead. This provides a pictorial representation of the concept that there are different levels of worship; latria and dulia, and that only God is deserving of the true devotion expressed by latria. Furthermore, it is suggestive of the concern that worship may be directed towards idols and visual representatives of God such as images of saints in churches, rather than to the divine figure who has imbued them with their power: God. The image acts as a corrective to any tendency to worship the image or one of Gods representatives instead of the Lord himself, which may even arise as a result of the images included in the book. The images thus provide the reader with a guide of how to read and interpret them. Another example of St. John providing a guide to suitably pious behaviour can be seen in the image of St. John in which he is depicted with his fingers in his ears 11

Alice White EN646: Image, Vision & Dream Seminar Leader: Sarah James because of the beasts blaspheming.19 He demonstrates to the reader the appropriate response to blasphemy, and also makes the text more pronounced in demonstrating how awful the things said by the beast are in his shocked reaction. The illustrator furthermore demonstrates how terrible the beast is, and similarly his followers must be in order to listen to him, reaffirming the boundaries of acceptable behaviour with those who listen to the beast and deny Christianity located outside. The reason that St. John guides the reader on a spiritual pilgrimage is to help them ensure their place in Heaven at the time of judgement. With the short life expectancy and high possibility of violent death during the Middle Ages, people were encouraged to think on their physical demise in order to secure a place in Heaven at Judgement. The illustrated Apocalypse acted as a way to reinforce church teachings via powerful iconography such as the weighing of souls, an image which is frequently found in medieval church images.20 Christ or St. Michael are usually depicted at the weighing of souls as gazing directly out at the reader, this gaze suggesting that they too look to themselves and ensure that when their judgement comes that they will have done enough to ensure their place in the New Jerusalem. The meaning of the text is delivered immediately through the medium of image, and the suggestion of judgement is in the readers mind throughout their consideration of the text. St. John occupies a place in many manuscripts which lies between text and image, outside the frame but an image himself nonetheless. As the author of the work and a figure of the text he is both real and imagined. As Gods
Figure 13 John watches through border as the Twenty-Four Elders Pay Homage to the Throne of God MS. Ludwig III 1, (Fol. 4v)

chosen messenger to the mortal world, he acts as an

intermediary between heaven and earth. The images themselves from all of the
19 Suzanne Lewis, Reading images : narrative discourse and reception in the thirteenthcentury illuminated Apocalypse (Cambridge University Press, 1995) p. 136 20 Ann Marshall, The Doom, or Last Judgement, and the Weighing of Souls: an Introduction, <> (2000) accessed 10/12/2009


Alice White EN646: Image, Vision & Dream Seminar Leader: Sarah James Apocalypse manuscripts are similarly between heaven and earth, depicting spiritual visions from one but actually extant in the other. Because of this, they are suggestive of many different possibilities of vision and image, more than could be considered in this essay. In conveying a likeness of the text, I would argue that the images provide the reader far more information, from how to worship to ideas to focus meditation upon, as well as suggesting the route to the spiritual true happiness that Boethius propounds. They even advise the reader on how to read them, and the danger of misinterpreting the deified representatives and representations of God for the deity. Since the original wisdom of the Book of Revelation had been passed down by God, and God is the highest being, no human interpretation be it textual or image can present the same thing, but merely re-present in order to convey meaning derived from the original. Both text and image thus provide the reader with glosses for this highly allegorical text, and the value of the image in relation to the Book of Revelation in medieval manuscripts must not be underestimated.


Alice White EN646: Image, Vision & Dream Seminar Leader: Sarah James

Aristotle, De Sensu and De Memoria: Text and Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Edited by G. R. T. Ross (Cambridge University Press, 1906) Roland Barthes, Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath (Fontana, 1977) Elizabeth S. Bolman, De coloribus: The Meanings of Color in Beatus Manuscripts, Gesta (International Center of Medieval Art, 1999) Camille, Michael, Image on the Edge; The Margins of Medieval Art (Reaktion Books, 1992) Emmerson, Richard K., and McGinn, Bernard ed., The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages (Cornell University Press, 1992) Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: an Archaeology of the Human Sciences (Routledge, 2002) Harrington, W.J., The Apocalypse of St John: A Commentary (Chapman 1969) Jones, Alexander, Ed. The Jerusalem Bible: New Testament with abridged introductions and notes (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1967) Lewis, Suzanne ed. Reading images : narrative discourse and reception in the thirteenth-century illuminated Apocalypse (Cambridge University Press, 1995) Ann Marshall, The Doom, or Last Judgement, and the Weighing of Souls: an Introduction, <> (2000) accessed 10/12/2009 McKitterick, David, Ed. The Trinity Apocalypse, (British Library, 2005) Meer, F. van der, Apocalypse, Visions for the Book of Revelation, (Thames & Hudson, 1978) Williams, John, The illustrated Beatus : a corpus of the illustrations of the Commentary on the Apocalypse, (Harvey Miller, 1994 2003 The British Library Online, <> accessed 01/12/2009 The Beatus of La Seu dUrgell <> accessed 01/12/2009 Dyson Perrins Apocalypse at the Getty Museum <> accessed 01/12/2009


Alice White EN646: Image, Vision & Dream Seminar Leader: Sarah James The Morgan Beatus, MS M.644, Pierpont Morgan Library. < ms_letter=msm&ms_number=0644&totalcount=1> accessed 01/12/2009 The Tapestries of the Apocalypse, <> accessed 01/12/2009