Apocalypse Illustration in Medieval France:

Reims Cathedral, the Apocalypse of 1313, and the Val-Dieu Apocalypse

By Nigel John Morgan


Throughout the Middle Ages in Western Europe, the Apocalypse was the most popular book of the Bible as a single text to be fully illustrated with a set of pictures, beginning as early as the fifth century. The only country that, from the early ninth century to the early sixteenth, has a continuous tradition of depicting the Apocalypse in art is France. The illustrated French Apocalypses from the late thirteenth to the mid-fourteenth century are given particular attention in this essay, as it is the most productive and popular period for their production in France, and among them the Val-Dieu Apocalypse is most certainly one of the very finest examples.

Reims Cathedral - the Apocalypse in Sculpture

At approximately the same time as illustrated Apocalypses were gaining in popularity in England in the mid-thirteenth century, the only monumental Apocalypse cycle to be carved in stone was erected on the west façade of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Reims, located in the Champagne region of France. This building claims an important place in the history of medieval art as the coronation site for French kings and for possessing one of the most influential architectural and sculptural programmes in the development of Gothic architecture.

The precise dating of the west façade of Reims Cathedral is debated among specialists due to various halts in its construction which resulted in the west façade being redesigned three times after the decision to rebuild the previous cathedral was taken in 1207. The south portal of the western façade of this cathedral features an extensive Apocalypse cycle and dates to around 1260-75, i.e. more than four decades after the first illustrated Bible moralisée was made in France and about three decades before the sudden burst of Apocalypse manuscript production in Lorraine.

Reims cathedral - South portal of the west façade

Reims cathedral - South portal of the west façade. Photo by Namarie / Wikimedia Commons

Despite the popularity of such illustrated manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages, fully developed Apocalypse cycles rarely appeared in monumental form. No other medieval building features an exterior Apocalypse cycle of this complexity. At Reims a cycle of over 100 figures fills five rows of archivolts above the south portal of the west façade and continues onto the adjoining buttress. On the reverse façade, i.e. the interior, another short cycle appears in the voussoirs, the wedge-shaped stones forming archivolts. Finally, a cycle depicting the events of John's life and death covers the southern buttress, located around the corner from the southern portal of the west façade.

Dedicating an entire portal to the Apocalypse gives prominence to John's Revelation alongside other key sculptural and stained glass programmes at Reims that glorify the French monarchy as part of the triumph of the Church and the history of salvation. For example, in the archivolts of the central portal dedicated to the Virgin, the Ancients of the Apocalypse, crowned as kings and playing musical instruments, replace the tree of Jesse displaying the ancestors of Mary. The gallery of kings high above the portal archivolts symbolizes the achievement of the French kings in helping to establish this Heavenly Jerusalem on Earth. This focus may explain why the Apocalypse sequence on the portal ends with Apoc. 20 rather than with John's vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Being the site of the coronation of French kings, Reims proclaims the shared destiny of the French monarchy and the archbishopric of Reims in the establishment of the Heavenly Jerusalem on Earth.

The Apocalypse of 1313

APOCALYPSE OF 1313, ff. 45v-46r: John writing and the Sea of Glass

APOCALYPSE OF 1313, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 13096 ff. 45v-46r
John writing and the Sea of Glass

The colophon of the Apocalypse of 1313 (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 13096) declares that the book was completed "on the Saturday after St Denis's feast day" of 1313. Most remarkably, the next sentence of the colophon gives the name of the manuscript's designer and artist:

   Colin Chadewe arranged and illuminated it.

Chadewe's Apocalypse is remarkable in its unique assemblage of texts and 184 images, making it one of the most expansive programmes of Apocalypse imagery in the Middle Ages. The biblical text is a variant found in the Bible historiale and is illustrated with a full-size miniature on every recto and usually a smaller, framed miniature on the verso depicting John writing. An uncommon and unillustrated commentary follows, which is believed to be a French translation of the Expositio Libri Apocalypsis. Added in between these two texts are four vivid depictions of the tortures in hell. The dialect of the vernacular texts suggests a place of production in Picardy or north-eastern France. Marie-Thérèse Gousset localizes the painting style to the Mosan region and in particular to Liège.

APOCALYPSE OF 1313, f. 50r: The Sixth Bowl, Knights in armor

APOCALYPSE OF 1313, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 13096, f. 50r
The Sixth Bowl, Knights in armor

Much of the imagery in the Apocalypse of 1313 is entirely original. A good example is the depiction of the dragon's war against the Woman's progeny (f. 37r), who have been turned into friars who are then slain by the dragon two folios later. These modifications lend the Apocalypse a sense of urgency, locating the events of John's prophecy in the present, and may also refer to clerical involvement in the events leading to Christ's Final Judgment. Complementing this sentiment is the depiction of men gathered to fight at Armageddon as armoured knights representing France, Castile, and the Holy Roman Empire (f. 50r). In several places, new compositions are inserted into the Apocalypse iconography. Most notably, after John's vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the Tree of Life (f. 83r) and the Bosom of Abraham (f. 84r) illustrate chapter 22 and provide a broader exegetical perspective of John's vision.

One of the most noticeable innovations is the repeated appearance of demons through the miniatures. Although they appear in expected places, such as among Satan?s angels falling from heaven (f. 16r), they also appear in the moralisations within the Seven Churches of Asia (f. 6r), take the form of the four angels bound in the Euphrates (f. 28r), and accompany the Great Harlot of Babylon (f. 65r). They even count among the myriad of marginal drolleries. Not only do these demons underscore the ultimate point emphasized in the Apocalypse text, avoid damnation, but they also serve as visual foreshadowing for the dramatic tortures of hell that conclude the Apocalypse section.

APOCALYPSE OF 1313, ff. 86v-87r: The Great Harlot in Hell and the Hell of Trades

APOCALYPSE OF 1313, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 13096, ff. 86v-87r
The Great Harlot in Hell and the Hell of Trades

The gruesome tortures appearing in two of the four full-size miniatures following the end of the Apocalypse are tailored to specific sins (ff. 87r-87v). They visually link the eschatological perspective of John?s revelation to the unillustrated commentary and its focus on the salvation of sinners. Taking a novel approach to depicting the punishments of the damned, Chadewe shows sinners tortured according to their occupation. In other words, in lieu of a sort of standardized penal system in hell a butcher is prepared for slaughter, an innkeeper beat with a wine carafe, and a fishmonger drowned in a pond, for example. Overall, greed and lust receive visual prominence among the punishments, sins rather common to the laity. Marie-Thérèse Gousset notes that an important feature of the vernacular French commentary is its accessible rather than erudite form, which would appeal to the lay reader. The images of the tortures in hell exemplify this desire. They provocatively show what is at stake: eternal damnation.

Normandy Apocalypses

Similar to the situation in Lorraine, an English-illustrated Apocalypse instigated a sudden and brief interest in these luxury manuscripts in Normandy between 1320 and 1335. The four extant Norman manuscripts are: Val-Dieu (London, British Library, Add. Ms. 17333), Saint-Victor (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 14410), Cloisters (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters, MS 68.174), and Namur (Namur, Séminaire Notre-Dame, Ms. 77). These manuscripts are some of the finest examples of medieval Apocalypse art in any medium.

VAL-DIEU APOCALYPSE, ff. 17v-18r: Resurrection and Ascension of Two Witnesses

APOCALYPSE OF 1313, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 13096, ff. 17v-18r
Resurrection and Ascension of Two Witnesses

The homogeneous style of the four extant Norman Apocalypses situates them in the Cotentin region, likely in the city of Coutances. Some of the most remarkable features of the Norman Apocalypses are their dazzling painting style in bright colours and close similarity in iconography and format. Although each of the four manuscripts in this group exhibits subtle variations, the Val-Dieu Apocalypse presents the most lavish illumination and epitomizes the sumptuous quality of Norman painting.

All four Apocalypses were executed by different artists and each has subtle modifications, innovations, and discrepancies that prove that none were a copy of another but were made in separate production circumstances. Each possesses unique features or additions. The Val-Dieu Apocalypse showcases rich, saturated paint in every miniature, filling empty spaces with diapered backgrounds. Every folio is further embellished with painted initials and winding border extensions. The Val-Dieu Apocalypse is the only Norman Apocalypse to include an Old French translation of the Apocalypse in addition to the Latin, adding a considerable amount of text to the manuscript. To accommodate the extra lines of text, three half-folios with just the extra text that would not fit on the previous folio were woven into the manuscript (ff. 13, 35, 44).

The Namur Apocalypse inserts two additional images of John in supplication before the angel and then before Christ at the end (ff. 50r and 51v). The Saint-Victor Apocalypse features large, delicate pen-flourished initials and an unusual array of jewel tones in the miniatures. The Cloisters Apocalypse is the only one to add supplementary miniatures. A prefatory cycle of four folios depicting the early life of Christ precedes the Apocalypse section and patron portraits with a representation of the Virgin and a saint end the book. Such modifications allowed the patrons to personalize their manuscripts, adding to the luxury of the books.

It is unquestionable that the Norman Apocalypses were valued as deluxe books and status symbols. To begin with, there is an extravagance of unused space, leaving visible a wealth of parchment. Each Norman Apocalypse is large. Namur measures 250 ×200 mm and the other three are even bigger, measuring about 320 × 230 mm. The scale of these manuscripts affords large miniatures with the sumptuously painted figures for which the Norman Apocalypses are famous. Extensive cycles of vibrant imagery made Apocalypses distinctive among other types of manuscripts and consistently desirable throughout the Middle Ages.Few other illustrated manuscripts had so many sizeable miniatures in comparison to the text.

VAL-DIEU APOCALYPSE, f. 37r: Merchants lamenting the Fall of Babylon

APOCALYPSE OF 1313, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 13096, f. 37r
Merchants lamenting the Fall of Babylon

Many of the extra scenes are imaginative fabrications that take the form of contemporary figures, such as the fighters added to the Second Horseman (Val-Dieu, f. 6r), the kings added to the emptying of the sixth vial (Val-Dieu, f. 32r), and the entire miniature showing the inhabitants of Babylon bewailing its destruction (Val-Dieu, f. 37r). On the far left of this miniature of Babylon is a delightful image of a well-shod woman raising her skirts high above her knees. In her panic she animates John?s vision with a galvanizing liveliness. Other updates to the architecture and the dress of various figures, for example the Great Harlot of Babylon, transport the Apocalypse from a generic future to the present. These visual additions bring greater urgency and realism, and ultimately enhance both the visual splendour and eschatological purpose of this group of Apocalypses.

Nigel John Morgan is Honorary Professor of the History of Art and Head of Research of the Parker-on-the-Web Project on the medieval manuscripts of Corpus Christi College.

This was an excerpt from the commentary volume to the facsimile edition of the Val-Dieu Apocalypse. The facsimile editions of the Apocalypse of 1313, Val-Dieu Apocalypse and other illuminated manuscripts are available at www.moleiro.com.

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