A focus of my studies in Oxford this past Michaelmas Term was medieval eschatology, particularly the exegesis of the Book of Revelation in illuminated Apocalypses. I soon discovered this area is more complex than I expected perhaps because the medieval church did not insist on much dogma in eschatology beyond the teaching of the Nicene Creed that Jesus “shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.” Thus there was space for a lot of interesting diversity in the details of eschatology. And events such as the year 1000 and invasions from Muslims and Tartars certainly goaded speculation on the details of end times.
At the same time, the many failed predictions, especially those that involved dates, assisted more conservative eschatologies to reassert themselves from time to time. And most of the commentary texts of medieval illuminated Apocalypses reflect more conservative interpretations even as those, too, differ.
In short, medieval eschatology and its artistic expression is a fascinating but not at all easy area of study. This is reflected in disagreements and occasional errors in modern scholarship. Speaking of which, I am having to unlearn a thing or two I learned in Oxford!
So I appreciate a recent (and reasonably priced) acquisition to my library, Apocalypse Illuminated, The Visual Exegesis of Revelation in Medieval Illustrated Manuscriptsby Richard K. Emmerson, published just last year. I’ve come across a number of excellent books in my studies on the subject, but Emmerson’s stands out as the best overview. It certainly well aids and clarifies the study of a complex subject.
Emmerson goes over the similarities and differences between various illuminated Apocalypses very well and uses a multitude of illustrations well in so doing. His speculations as to what may have motivated bursts of creation of these lavish books, which clustered around certain times such as the third quarter of the 13thcentury, is also helpful.
And Emmerson is not at all merely derivative but advances scholarship. One example stood out to me. He boldly states that a number of very reputable scholars are mistaken in attributing a prediction that the end would come in 1260 to Joachim of Fiore. He attributes that failed prediction to Joachimite followers instead and noted Joachim himself was adverse to setting dates though he was certainly bold in other respects.
Do be aware that, as Emmerson makes clear, Apocalypse Illuminated focuses on how these manuscripts interpreted the Book of Revelation and on the influences behind those interpretations. Thus, though well illustrated, this is not an art book.
I could praise Apocalypse Illuminated further. But I will just say this: if I were to lead a seminar on medieval illuminated Apocalypses and accompanying eschatology, I would choose this book as theintroductory text. If there is a more scholarly, more readable, and more up-to-date overview in this area, I for one am not aware of it.