The word "apocalypse" conjures images of the destruction of the Earth, and the end of time itself. In the early medieval period, the year 1000 was believed to herald the end-time. As it loomed ever closer, apocalyptic visions occupied the minds of Christian Europe.
For Christians living in what is now Spain in the eighth century, the visions were intensified by the cataclysmic events sweeping through the Iberian Peninsula. Those events inspired a monk, Beatus, to write a commentary on the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament that vividly describes how the end-time will unfold. Beatus's work spread through Europe, and went on to inspire some of the most richly illustrated manuscripts of the medieval age.
Beatus, whose name means "the blessed one," lived and worked in northern Spain in highly turbulent times. In 711, two decades before his birth, Berber armies from North Africa brought the new faith of Islam into southern Spain. These Muslim forces rapidly toppled the local Christian Visigoth leaders.
One of the few Christian-controlled territories that remained was a mountainous strip in the north, comprising the duchy of Cantabria and the new kingdom of Asturias. Beatus probably grew up in Muslim-controlled regions of Spain and fled to the Christian north.
Accounts of Beatus's life attest to his erudition. He served as the confessor of the daughter of Alfonso I, the king of Asturias, and as abbot at the Abbey of Santo Toribio de Liébana, high in the Picos de Europa mountain range. There, he wrote his Commentary on the Apocalypse sometime between 776 and 784.
Beatus's commentary presents the biblical Book of Revelation. It was authored on the Greek island of Patmos by a man who called himself John. Tradition holds that this writer is the Apostle John, Jesus' beloved disciple who is credited with writing the biblical Gospel of John. Modern scholars argue that the author was most likely another John, possibly a preacher from Ephesus, who composed the work around a.d. 90.
In the Book of Revelation an angel reveals to John how the end of the world will unfold: The destruction of the Earth is followed by a final battle between the forces of heaven and hell. The book concludes with a Christ enthroned in majesty following the Last Judgment.
The Book of Revelation has always been a controversial book among Christians because of the ambiguity of its language and the complexity of its symbolism. From the fourth century on, when it was included in the canon of the Bible in the Western church, numerous church fathers and theologians used it to predict when the world would come to an end, based largely on this passage: "When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth" (Revelation 20:7-8).
At the time the Book of Revelation was written, Christians living in Rome had suffered severe persecution under Emperor Domitian, who reigned a.d. 81-96, and Emperor Nero, who ruled 13 years before. By marking the end of the age of temporal power and announcing the beginning of God's eternal kingdom, Revelation offered a message of hope. Surrounded by Muslim armies nearly 700 years later, Beatus and his fellow Christians found the same hopeful message in the themes of Revelation...