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Category Archives: Apocalypse

Much of Christian eschatological thought was predicated on the notion of the four empires of the world from the Old Testament Book of Daniel, an important text in the medieval period. This dictated that the span of earthly time was to be divided into the dominion of four empires, the last of which would be a tyrannical and evil power. Its ultimate destruction in a great battle would inaugurate the Apocalypse.

These empires variously consisted of The Greek, Persian, Babylonian, Roman. The advent of the Babylonian and Roman empires caused much stirring of Apocalyptic pronouncements for Jews and Christians as they were oppressed by each in turn. The Book of Revelation carries an implicit idea that it is Nero’s first century Rome which is the final evil empire, however with the conversion of Constantine  and the establishment of Christianity as the state religion of the empire that view was revised.

The sack of Rome by the Goths and the barbarian invasions of the early fifth century brought fresh prophetic proclamations however it was with the Arab invasions of the Eastern Roman Empire in the seventh century that the notion of a Last Roman Emperor took root.

Originating initially in a text attributed to a Bishop Methodius writing in the Byzantine empire then suffering the first wave of Arab conquests, the prophecy identified in dramatic terms its contemporaneous upheavals with the arrival of the last evil empire. It told of a sleeping emperor who would awake and lead an army against the forces of the Antichrist. As the victor of a great battle which brought an end to the strife endured under the evil empire, the Last Emperor would go to Jerusalem and place his crown on top of the Cross at Golgotha. By this act he would surrender his temporal authority, thereby ushering in the events of the Apocalypse and the millennial rule of Christ and the Saints on earth.

These beliefs concerning Apocalyptic prophecy were translated to the West as the Arab invasions progressed across the Mediterranean and, it can be reasonably speculated, partly informed the attitude of the medieval Christian church towards Islam and the Saracen presence in the Holy Land and Spain.

With Charlemagne’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800, the torch of responsibility for fulfilling these predictions seemed to be passed on to the Franks. Around the year 950, Adso the abbot of the Cluniac monastery at Montier-en-Der wrote a text in the form of a letter to the Frankish queen Gerberga on the subject of Origin and Life of Antichrist. Adso was an important writer of the tenth century and his manuscript made full use of the prophecies concerning a last emperor.

“Even though we see that the Empire of the Romans is for the most part destroyed, nevertheless, as long as the kings of the Franks, who possess the Roman Empire by right, survive, the dignity of the Roman Empire will not perish altogether”, wrote Adso, clearly identifying the Frankish kings as the inheritors of the Roman Imperial authority.

“Indeed, certain of our learned men tell us that one of the kings of the Franks, who will come very soon will the possess the Roman Empire in its entirety”, he continued,  “And he will be the greatest and last of all kings. He, after governing his kingdom prosperously will ultimately come to Jerusalem and lay down his sceptre and crown on Mount Olivet. This will be the end and the consummation of the Empire of the Romans and the Christians. And immediately, according to the aforesaid opinion of the Apostle Paul, they say that the Antichrist will soon be at hand.”

In Romanesque sculpture a recurrent theme is that of the Victorious Rider. There are numerous examples along the pilgrimage roads to Compostela. The horseman, always presented riding over a cowed figure beneath, represents the military strength of the temporal champion of Christianity with which the legends of Constantine and Charlemagne are endowed and which is assumed into eschatological thinking by the prophecy of the Last Roman Emperor, all of which fed into the Crusader mentality of the medieval world.

Notable examples of the Victorious Rider are to be seen at Oloron-Sainte-Marie and Parthenay-le-Vieux

Santiago de Compostela lies only twenty miles inland from the Atlantic ocean at the far western extremity of the European landmass, known by the Romans as Finis Terra, the end of the earth. For them the ocean was the Mare Tenebrosum, the dark sea. Since ancient times this coastline, known as the Costa da Muerte, the coast of death, had been finisteraused by traders who sailed along it towards the tin mines of the Scilly Isles and Cornwall. It was an important trade route linking the classical mediterranean world with the Celtic.

It was via these old trade routes that cultural and religious ideas were transmitted. For the Greeks the far west was considered the mythical Land of the Dead and they dubbed the inhabitants the Keltoi  after Caillaech, their mother goddess.

Galicia, a remote land bordered by the sea to the north and west and the mountains to the  south and east retained her Celtic heritage long after the surrounding area had been Christianised. Still today, the landscape contains occasional druidic dolmens.

At Finisterra the Celts had a major pilgrimage site, the Ara de Solis, the altar of the Sun. The cardinal points had symbolic meaning too. The East represented Birth and Resurrection, the West: Death and the Afterlife.

Combined, these elements indicate that the area around Compostela had from prehistoric times been a significant place of pilgrimage associated with funeral rites.

isidorean-mappamundi-11th-sMedieval maps depict a circular area surrounded by water with Jerusalem at its centre and Galicia at its western point. Christian conceptions of the world also regarded the west coast of Spain as the limit of the earth. Considered in the context of the Mission of the Apostles it was a significant location. According to widely held belief the End of the World could only happen when the Apostolic Mission had been accomplished, that is the Gospel had been spread to the furthest reaches of the world.

The Arab invasion of Spain at the beginning of the eighth century seemed to fulfill the prophecy of the Book of Daniel concerning the fourth empire of the World. This empire would be the final one, culminating in the Apocalypse.

The Asturian abbot Beatus of Liebana was a refugee from Islamic Andalusia and the illustration of the Earth in his celebrated Commentary on the Apocalypse  confirms the Apostle James as evangeliser of Spain.  A number of prophetic ideas were now coming together.

Had the Mission of the Apostles been completed? Was the perceived threat to Christendom posed by the Arab invasion that prelude to Apocalypse prophecied in Daniel and Revelations? If so, what more fitting place to go in pilgrimage than that remote corner of the world.

The discovery of the tomb of the Apostle at Compostela a generation after Beatus  seemed an inevitablity.

As the Book of Saint James tells us with Apocalyptic foreboding: “As the Eastern Apostolic See was established by St. John at Ephesus, so was the Western established by St. James. And those Sees are undoubtedly the true Sees. Ephesus on the right hand of Christ’s earthly kingdom, and Compostela on the left, both which fell to the share of the sons of Zebedee”.

After the Arab invasion, Christian Spain was restricted to a small kingdom north of the Cantabrian mountains called Asturias. It was from here that the origins of the Reconquest were born and that an abbot, Beatus of Liebana composed a famous commentary on the Apocalypse in the late eighth century.

The Christians of Asturias found significance in their defeat at the hands of the Saracens. These were events long prophecied.

It was reckoned that the Antichrist was now come and the End Times were unfoldng. Beatus was one of the first to claim that Saint James had fulfilled his Apostolic Mission in Spain following the Pentecost and prior to his martyrdom at Jerusalem in A.D. 44.

It was not long after, in the early years of the ninth century that the miraculous discovery of his tomb was made by a shepherd at Compostela. The location of the most important shrine of western Europe at such a significant site as the frontier between Christendom and the Caliphate on the very edge of the known world, may not have been mere coincidence but it certainly had a great pull on contemporary imaginations. How the body had reached Spain from Jerusalem was the subject of an elaborate legend.

The manuscript of Beatus’ Commentary on the Apocalypse was copied in the monasteries which lined the pilgrim road, for a long time the front line of the war between Christians and Arabs

All along the pilgrimage roads to Santiago de Compostela one sees reflected in the stone carvings of the churches a deep preoccupation with the Apocalypse and the Second Coming.

Although since the eighth century a new chronology had been devised which dated the calendar from the Anno Domini, the earlier dating from the Annus Mundi continued to coexist. This dated from the Creation and used a neuvy-cap-33combination of Biblical and historical material to calculate the year. Most chronologers and historians placed the birth of Christ somewhere in the fifth millennium. The subtext to Annus Mundi was the concept of eschatological time. Saint Augustine had written warning against attempts to calculate the timing of the Apocalypse and that the prophecies of the Bible should be taken as having symbolic value.

However literal interpretations continued to hold their grasp, even within the official church. According to these ideas Time was structured according to seven millennia. The end of the fifth millennium would bring the Apocalypse. This would be followed by the thousand year rule of Christ and the saints on Earth at the end of which Christ would return for the Day of Judgment.

The early Christians had believed that these events would occur in their lifetime and for medieval man they seemed equally imminent.

via-domitiaTo understand the mindset of the medieval pilgrim one should take account of the eschatological world view which was universally accepted at the time.

In the twelfth century, men could not help but notice that all around them lay the ruins of a great civilisation.

Temples, civic buidlings, great bridges and roads had crumbled and fallen into disrepair through neglect. What remained spoke of a glorious past, of a society whose organisational and technological capabilities were far beyond those of the present time.

And yet in the early twelfth century a monk, abbot of a northern French monastery wrote criticising those who praised the achievements of the ancients over those of his own day. In doing so he revealed an attitude prevalent in his time. Men believed that their world was quite literally growing old, that its period of greatness was now in the long distant past and that the Roman Empire had constituted a golden age.

What lay ahead was the Apocalypse and the task of society was to prepare the way for the inevitable: “Although pure strength was pre-eminent among the ancients, yet among us, though the end of time has come upon us, the gifts of nature have not entirely rotted away”, so wrote the abbot.

“Certain mortals” he continued, ”have developed the foul habit of praising previous times and attacking what modern men do … However, no discerning individual could prefer in any way the temporal prosperity of the ancients to any of the strengths of our own day.”

By this the abbot, Guibert de Nogent, meant that the spiritual strengths of his day were of greater value than the material wealth of the past.