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Silos Apocalypse

This spectacular manuscript of Beatus of Liébana's commentary on the Apocalypse survives in near perfect condition from the first decade of the 12th century. It was copied and illuminated in the Spanish monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos, near Burgos, at a time when the monastery's scriptorium was producing its finest work. Painted in brilliant colours and embellished with gold and silver leaf, its 106 striking miniatures illustrate the most extraordinary scenes in the Christian Bible - a triumph of artistic vision.

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Silos Apocalypse

'Silos Apocalypse': Northern Spain, c.1100
British Library Add. MS 11695, ff.147v-148
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is an apocalypse?

In general, an apocalypse is a story in which a supernatural guide presents the author with a vision of the future, usually in a highly symbolic way. The Christian Apocalypse refers to the final part of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation of St John the Divine, also known as St John of Patmos.

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 arcane allegories and number symbolism - imagery as bewildering as it is captivating. St Jerome, who made a Latin translation of the Bible in the fourth century, declared the book had "as many mysteries as it does words".

Though a challenge to theologians, the symbolism of the Apocalypse was a great inspiration for 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 Liébana?

He 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 Liébana in Cantabria. Here, around 776, he wrote his 12-volume commentary - an exposition - on the Book of Revelation and the visionary writings of the Old Testament prophet, Daniel.

Beatus laboured on his commentary in the belief that the world would end in the year 800. Though the world was spared, new dates for its end were calculated with pessimistic regularity, and Beatus's commentary continued to be held in high esteem among medieval Christians. Many exact copies of his text were produced.

Who made this copy?

The Silos Apocalypse contains detailed notes about its creators - 'colophons'. They tell us the manuscript was completed "on the sixth hour of the day" on Thursday 18 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."

Munnio started illuminating the Apocalypse, but it was completed by Petrus, Prior of the monastery. He painted the vivid miniatures. The illumination was eventually completed on 1 July 1109.

The courtyard of the monastery at Silos, northern Spain

What do these pages show?

They illustrate a war in heaven described at the beginning of the 12th chapter of the Book of Revelation. As is common in medieval art, several incidents in the narrative are included in one picture.

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 woman 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, travailing 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, bottom left. She is given wings to fly to safety, but the dragon cast floodwater out of his mouth - only for the earth to open up and swallow the water.

Why is the Silos Apocalypse important?

Its beauty and excellent state of preservation would alone make this an important manuscript. But 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.

How did the manuscript come to the British Library?

On 9 May 1840, the British Museum bought the Silos Apocalypse from one Count Survilliers - the demoted Joseph Bonaparte, who had presumably taken the manuscript from the Royal Library before he fled Spain.