Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Trinity Apocalypse

          While the Apocalypse is approached by our generation mostly as a conspiracy theory by large haired men on the History Channel, in Medieval Europe it was a constant aspect of their lives that could happen at any moment. Many famous clergy, from Saint Beatus of Liebana who wrote a commentary on the Book of Revelations, to Pope Innocent III who declared 666 AD as the coming again of the Messiah due to the rise of Islam, spent their lives reading, interpreting, and predicting the End of Days. 

          This obsession with the end of the world stemmed from the persecution faced by early Christians from the Romans. The belief that they would be rewarded and those who denied their faith and oppressed them would be punished was a form of solidarity for many Christians. From the 6th Century onward, the Apocalypse became an almost type of safety cushion for medieval Christians whenever anything would go wrong, whether it was the fall of the Roman Empire or the Black Plague. To the point where a trend of predicting the Apocalypse occurred several times a century, or during or after any prominent event.

           By the 13th Century, when the secular masses began to own and read religious manuscripts, the Book of Revelations became a hot topic. Basically as close as one could get to a science-fiction novel at the time. Many of the learned aristocracy and clergy were fascinated by the final book of the Bible, which led to many manuscripts, such as the Trinity Apocalypse, an Anglo Norman commentary on the subject, being produced.

           The manuscript is believed to be made for Queen Eleanor, the wife of King Henry III of England, and its beautiful illumination and gilding demonstrates a richness that only the the Duke of Aquitaine, the largest and wealthiest province of France and another title held by Henry III, could provide. Along with incredible amounts of gold, the manuscripts show an impressive amount of lapis lazuli (the deep blue ink seen below), which at the time in Britain was worth more than its weight in gold.

folio 29r
folio 30r

For so much luxury and expense to be spent on a manuscript, especially one with so many full page miniatures and detailed initials, the subject matter of the text must have held significant value to the owner, and proceeding owners as well.
The manuscript was well kept in private hands until 1649, when Dame Anne Sadleir gave the manuscript to Trinity College in Dublin, with the inscription:

I commit this booke to the custodie of the Right Reuerend Father in God Raffe Lo: Bishop of Exon, when times are better setled (which God hasten) it is with my other booke & my coins giuen to Trinitie Colledge Librarie in Cambridge, God in his good time restore her with her Sister Oxford to there pristine happiness, the Vulger People to there former obedience, and God blesſ and restore Charles the Second, & make him like his most glorious Father. Amen. 
August the 20tie. 1649. Anne Sadleir.

        This demonstrates the importance the Book of Revelations held throughout medieval history and Christianity, focusing less on the horrors of the End, and more on the Paradise that awaited those who were righteous. 


  1. I think that even today, there is still a fascination with The End. I remember hearing about the Y2K, the Mayan prophecy that the world would end on December 21, 2012 (death and destruction by time-zone), and that one day that one televangelist SWORE the Rapture would happen. It makes sense that the people of medieval Europe would have an even greater fascination with the Apocalypse, due to the far-reaching influence of the Church and the larger population of believers. The Trinity Apocalypse is in superb condition; the illuminated pictures are vibrantly rendered and the depictions are richly detailed. This particular manuscript is one of the earliest, highly decorated texts in a series of books discussing the book of Revelations made during the thirteenth century. The emphasis on paradise and the wonders of the Second coming of Christ is a refreshing approach to the end of the world, as opposed to the emphasis on the horror and sufferings that will beleaguer those that remain during the final days.

  2. It’s always interesting to hear about the beliefs or behaviorisms from the medieval period that seem similar to certain groups today. Many people are just as quick to claim apocalypse today, with talk of climate change, old prophecies and natural disasters. The Christian outlook on apocalypse is also huge, and even many non-radical believers often talk about the impending “end of the world.” Studies and observations of the book of Revelations too are huge, a lot of the evidence that these Christian circles focus on stemming from the book; seeing this much attention paid to the book in the medieval courts isn’t much of a stretch. For the manuscript to be so expensively created - even using lapis lazuli in the intricate illuminations – might seem to be a bit overindulgent if it wasn’t for the massive amounts of money and time people (both in our century and previous ones) are known for spending when it comes to apocalypse-based materials and the like.

  3. I think it's interesting that you compare the apocalyptic passages of the Bible to a science fiction novel, because I always wondered to what extent the average lay person truly put stake in the idea that the Second Coming would be soon. The amount of time that must have been put into the creation of the book itself rather suggests that the overwhelming majority of people were focused on temporal things rather than the end of the world. The Apocalypse is certainly captivating, the idea of the proximity of the end may have been a useful tool for getting people to focus on faith -- much as it is today -- but it seems to me an odd thing to choose to dwell on to such an extent in one's private religious life.