Silos Apocalypse

This spectacular manuscript survives in near perfect condition from the first decade of the 1100s. The book contains Beatus of Liebana's commentary on the Apocalypse.  It was copied and illuminated in the Spanish monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos, near Burgos. Painted in brilliant colours and embellished with gold and silver leaf, its 106 striking miniatures illustrate the most extraordinary scenes in the Christian Bible.

What's an apocalypse?

An apocalypse is a story in which a supernatural guide presents the author with a vision of the future, usually using complex symbolism. The Christian Apocalypse refers to the final part of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation of St John the Divine.

In the story, the cataclysmic destruction of the world is followed by a war in heaven leading to a final triumphant vision of Christ in Majesty. John's narrative is rich in mysterious allegories and symbolism - imagery as bewildering as it is captivating. For centuries, the story of the apocalypse has provided great inspiration to artists. Images such as the woman crowned with stars standing on the crescent moon and, in particular, the adoration of Christ in the form of a sacrificial lamb became key subjects of Christian art.

Who was Beatus of Liebana?

Beatus of Liebana was a Spanish monk, born around 730. During the Islamic occupation of Southern Spain, Beatus moved north and settled in the monastery of St Martin at Liebana in Cantabria. Here, around 776, he wrote his commentary on the Book of Revelation and on the writings of the Old Testament prophet, Daniel.

Beatus believed that the world would end in the year 800. Though this did not happen, new dates for the world's end were calculated with pessimistic regularity, and Beatus's commentary continued to be held in high esteem among medieval Christians.

Who made this copy?

The manuscript contains detailed notes about its creators, telling us that it was completed 'on the sixth hour of the day' on Thursday 18th April 1091 by monks called Munnio and Dominico. They say:

The work of writing makes one lose his sight, it hunches his back, it breaks ribs and bothers the stomach, it pains the kidneys and causes aches throughout the body. Therefore, you the reader, turn the pages carefully and keep your fingers from the letters, because just as hail destroys the fields, the useless reader erases the text and destroys the book.

What do these pages show?

These pages illustrate a war in heaven described at the beginning of the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation.

The episode begins with the female figure in the top left corner. In the words of St John:

...there appeared a great wonder in the heaven; a women clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: and she being with child cried, travelling in birth, and pained to be delivered.

A seven-headed dragon appears and threatens to devour her newly-born baby, but is attacked by St Michael and his army of angels. The dragon confronts the woman again, in the bottom left of the page. She is given wings to fly to safety, but the dragon casts floodwater out of his mouth - only for the earth to open up and swallow the water.

Why is the Silos Apocalypse important?

The beauty and excellent state of preservation of this manuscript make it an important one. However, it also contains one of the oldest Christian maps of the world, reflecting the Roman view of things. East is at the top, and beyond the Red Sea is a hint of an undiscovered fourth continent that some ancient thinkers suggested must exist to balance Europe, Asia and Africa.

Taken from: Silos Apocalypse
Date: c.1100
Copyright: By permission of the British Library
Shelfmark: Add. MS 11695, ff. 147v-148