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Medieval sketch of a compass with Latin writing.

What the Apocalypse Will Look Like (According to a 1486 Manuscript)


These 15th century maps describe the appearance of things after the end of the world.

Humankind has imagined the end of the world for centuries. But the very concept, this hypothetical situation, depends largely on what we mean by “the end,” and then again, by what we mean by “the world.” If we’re speaking only of our own planet, we know that in about 4 billion years our galaxy, the Milky Way, will collide with its neighbor, Andromeda. This will very likely end Earth as we know it. If not, then our planet will disappear when the Sun becomes a red giant, in about 50 billion years. But for a Christian of the Middle Ages, any assumptions of this nature was necessarily connected with what religion called the Apocalypse, and that branch of the theology that studies it; eschatology.

Medieval sketch of sun and arrow shape with Latin writing.

Such a scenario was portrayed and described in innumerable ways by theologians, philosophers, artists, and other scholars who had the general sense that the Apocalypse was very near. This is hardly coincidental if we take into account the numbers of plagues, diseases, wars, and excesses that have characterized humanity throughout history (and on down to the present day). The 15th-century in Europe was no exception. In a society plagued by death and outbreaks, and which had seen the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, the end of the world couldn’t help but seem just around the corner.

Still, at the time, there was a huge market for books from the then nascent publishing industry, and in which the end of the world was described both verbally and visually. Among the dozens of volumes touching on such themes, one stands out for not resembling any other. It’s a volume describing the Apocalypse through maps indexed according to their typology: symbolic, thematic, geographic, etc.

Medieval sketch of circular river with Latin writing.

In the map above, for example, is an illustration of a triangle suggesting the emergence of the Antichrist. This event, it was calculated, would happen between 1570 and 1600. The shape of the chart, making a “T,” was known to medieval cartography as an Orbis Terrarum. Such maps were characterized by their highly theological contents. The author here was deeply concerned about the spread of Islam, and thus we see that all the text surrounding the central circle narrates the splendor of the empire, from 639 to 1514.

Medieval sketch of swords with Latin writing.

A second map shows five swords pointing towards the limits of the known world and representing the Islamic armies reaching the very ends of the Earth. The following map thus shows the four horns of the Antichrist.

Medieval sketch of horns of the Antichrist with Latin writing.

In this next map, one can see a representation of the final judgment in the upper part and a black eye below symbolizes the abyss that leads to hell.

Medieval sketch of hills and black eye with Latin writing.

Written in Latin, the maps were made in Lübeck, Germany, sometime between 1486 and 1488. Today the originals are part of the collection of the Huntington Library in Los Angeles, California. Experts who’ve analyzed them argue that the author was not especially erudite and that his calligraphy is quite poor compared to many others of the period. It’s believed, then, that these maps were destined for a cultural elite, but not to the very pinnacle of that elite. Finally, the texts also reflect the strong anti-Islamic sentiment that permeated medieval Europe and filled both its religious books and other cultural forms.

Medieval sketch of circular text with Latin writing.

The compendium of maps includes also a section on astrological medicine and a treatise on geography remarkably advanced for its time and this has attracted the attention of many experts. The maps are interesting for the mental and formal exercise they propose: the visual representation of the symbolic and the religious in apocalyptic cartography exploring all of these deep, sinuous territories.

Images: Open Culture

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