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In the mid-13th century a remarkable creative flowering took place in English art. As influential preachers predicted the end of the world, and catastrophic events appeared to confirm their dire warnings, there was a surge in demand for illuminated manuscripts of Revelation, the culminating book of the New Testament, known as the Apocalypse of John the Divine. The text is short, but filled with visionary imagery to which artists responded in spectacular fashion. Among the surviving manuscripts, one of the very finest is the Getty Apocalypse, here presented in facsimile for the first time.
The Getty Apocalypse exemplifies the best of the English school of the mid-13th century, and is an exceptional artistic achievement. Over 80 magnificent miniatures set in succession above the text create a glorious sequence of divine revelation, leading the viewer through John’s poetic, dramatic vision of the Apocalypse. These are amongst the finest of medieval miniatures: exquisitely delineated in tinted colour embellished with gold and silver leaf. Each shows the hand of a master artist possessed of an unerring sense of composition, a wonderful understanding of colour, and a rare ability to express emotion through gesture and expression. Some manuscripts are more lavish in their use of gold, others are larger, or more idiosyncratic, but none can equal the unique combination of features found in the Getty.
Revelation tells of the vision granted to John the Divine. During the Middle Ages this shadowy figure was believed to be John, the author of the fourth Gospel. An apocryphal ‘Life’ of John tells of his persecutions under the Emperor Domitian. He was immersed in a cauldron of boiling oil (from which he miraculously emerged unscathed) and then exiled to the island of Patmos, where an angel showed him the vision that he described in his Revelation. He witnessed the ultimate battle between good and evil; the end of the world; the second coming of Christ, and the final fate of the saved and the damned. It is a powerful work, filled with disturbing images and symbols and written in a resonant, poetic language which still has the ability to instil awe in readers today.
For many in the medieval age, Revelation was a forecast to events which were expected to happen at any moment, a belief that fired the making of Apocalypses. Other theologians, however, preferred to interpret the Book metaphorically, to look for layers of hidden meaning which the initiated could apply to their lives and use as a tool to interpret the scriptures. Below each magnificent miniature appears the corresponding passage from Revelation written in black ink. Alongside it in red is an extract from the commentary by Berengaudus. This influential work of theology was probably written in the second half of the 11th century, although little more than his name is known about the author. It interprets and explains the vision and, in doing so, reveals much about medieval preoccupations with sin, scripture and the world. A full translation of both texts is provided in our commentary volume.
An important feature of the Getty Apocalypse is its frequent use of historiated initials – 42 in total – some using religious symbolism, but many primarily intended to entertain and amuse. Other Apocalypses had begun with a single historiated initial, and in the next century their use would become more widespread, but the artist who created the Getty Apocalypse was a pioneer who delighted in creating secular scenes. Here we find depictions of everything from acrobats to an Aesop’s fable.
A sense of immediacy and urgency runs through this Apocalypse, enhanced by the artist’s decision to include the figure of John witnessing each scene. He kneels in awe at the appearance of the lamb, and peers through a window in the frame. Horrified by flood or earthquake, John turns away, peeping back through the frame, as if unable to help himself. Occasionally, his eagerness to see more makes him lean against the frame or stretch up on tiptoe for a better view.
In one vision, John’s own symbol, the eagle, thrusts its beak through a window as if to emphasise the importance of what he is seeing. This adds a dramatic dimension to the narrative, involving us in the process of revelation itself. It is a fascinating trope, and although other manuscripts had experimented with the device, nowhere else is it so fully, or so subtly explored.
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All facsimiles require technically demanding photography and digital reproduction, but this Apocalypse required some especially challenging work to reproduce the lavish use of gold and silver. The gold and silver leaf on the original manuscript have been painstakingly replicated in metallic foil, which has then been over-printed to reduce its glare and give it the effect of age.
Professor Nigel J. Morgan is the acknowledged expert on the English Apocalypse tradition, having spent many years studying manuscripts in major institutions across the Western world. For the commentary volume created to accompany this facsimile he has provided a full translation of the text and analysed the imagery in both miniatures and historiated initials. He provides a full background to the Apocalypse in medieval art, providing a context in which to appreciate it fully. The Getty manuscript is missing a few leaves at the end, and in the commentary volume we have reproduced scenes from a related Apocalypse in the British Library. Also included are a number of illustrations from other manuscripts, which reveal how the Getty is both part of a tradition and yet highly distinctive.