St. Michael Slaying Dragon, Christ in Majesty Above
Beatus of Liébana
Las Huelgas Apocalypse
Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1910
This, the finest miniature of the prefatory cycle, serves as a frontispiece for the Apocalypse itself. It is a novel feature of the Las Huelgas Apocalypse and proclaims, from the beginning, the glorious victory of Christ over Satan, an idea reinforced by the apotheosis imagery at the top, where two angels support the blessing Christ in a shieldlike mandorla. They stand on the necks of two fantastic winged creatures flanking Michael, whose heads support Christ's mandorla. The battle between Michael and the Dragon is the subject of chapter twelve of the Apocalypse, and commentators equated Michael with Christ, stating that the dragon (Satan) was defeated by the blood of the Lamb, that is, Christ's Passion, Death, and Resurrection.
The Apocalypse, or Book of Revelation, is not only the last book of the New Testament, it is also its most difficult, puzzling, and terrifying. According to the text, it was written on the island of Patmos by a Christian prophet named John, who, from the second century on, was identified with the "beloved" apostle of Christ and the author of the fourth Gospel. Dionysius (d. ca. 264), bishop of Alexandria, and others, however, rejected the identification on the basis of style and content, a conclusion shared by most biblical scholars. The Eastern Church, for over a thousand years, regarded the Apocalypse as heretical, excluding it from the Bible. Martin Luther considered it neither apostolic nor prophetic and could in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it. The apostles, he said, deal in clear and plain words, and thus there are far better books. Given the Apocalypse's hostile attitude to Rome, dates from the reign of Emperor Nero (54–68) or, more often, Domitian (81–96) have been proposed; they both persecuted Christians. A much earlier date for chapters 4–12 has been suggested by J. Massyngberde Ford, who attributed them to John the Baptist and proposed that the first three chapters were added after A.D. 60 to "Christianize" the text. The interpretation of the book is also problematic, and over the last two millennia each age seemed to offer its own. Whereas medieval apocalypticism was primarily religious, that of our own day added a secular, often negative note, including such things as the AIDS epidemic, the Y2K "bug," global warming, and terrorist attacks. The Greek word apocalypse, meaning "revelation," has become synonymous with catastrophe. Despite the fact that the text itself suggests that what would happen was imminent (Jesus himself said the Second Coming was soon), and that every prediction up to 2000 remains unfulfilled, this has not deterred some from making new ones. Beatus wrote his commentary to prepare his fellow monks for the end he believe would arrive in 800, but he may also have survived his prophecy. Eschatological predictions, alas, overshadow the book's positive meaning, that the forces of evil will be overcome and that the righteous and faithful will be victorious, receiving their reward in heavenly Jerusalem. Most of the miniatures in the Las Huelgas Apocalypse section are by an artist, perhaps an assistant, whose origins are less clear. The Master of Toledo, who painted the Daniel scenes, executed the seven miniatures beginning on folio 100 as well as the final Apocalypse miniature (fol. 146v). Beatus divided the text into sixty-eight short sections, each with a lengthy commentary (a storia and explanatio); the miniatures follow and usually illustrate the storia.
The Apocalypse, or Book of Revelation, is not only the last Book of the New Testament, but its most difficult, puzzling, and terrifying. It provided challenges to medieval illustrators and was the source for a number of popular images, such as Christ in Majesty, the Adoration of the Lamb, and the Madonna of the Apocalypse and contributed to the widespread use of the Evangelists' symbols.
Selected images from Apocalypse Then: Medieval Illuminations from the Morgan, an exhibition held at the Morgan are presented here. The exhibition celebrates the completion of a facsimile of the Morgan's Las Huelgas Apocalypse—the latest dated (1220) and largest surviving manuscript of a Spanish tradition of illuminated commentaries on the Apocalypse by the monk Beatus of Liébana. The series of manuscripts constitutes Spain's most important contribution to medieval manuscript illumination.
The Las Huelgas Apocalypse contains three sections: the prefatory cycle, the Apocalypse, and the Book of Daniel.
In addition to forty-nine images from the Las Huelgas Apocalypse, six images from other manuscripts in the Morgan's collections, including the earliest Beatus painted by Maius and one by the Master of the Berry Apocalypse, are in this presentation.