Welcome to the virtual tour of Visions of the End.
Visions of the End is a temporary exhibition at the McClung Museum located on the campus of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. This exhibition was curated by Jay Rubenstein and Gregor Kalas of the Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.It features imagery from the Biblical Book of Revelations as envisioned by medieval Europeans. My name is Katy Malone, Curator of Academic Programs here at the McClung, and I am going to walk you through the exhibition, highlighting a few of the works.
The first object you encounter in the exhibition is this masterful manuscript from 1325. It is a Bible Historiale, a book written in French that combined historic events and biblical narratives. Like all books of its time, this manuscript was completely handcrafted. On the top right, you can see a beautiful rendering of John of Patmos, the author of the Book of Revelation. Around 90 CE, John was exiled to the Island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. There he experienced visions, which he believed came directly from the heavens. His account of those visions became the Book of Revelation.
Revelation tells of fantastical beasts and redemption that usher in and lead to the final days of humanity. Scattered throughout these depictions are historical references to the events of John’s day. In particular, John of Patmos vilifies the pagan Roman Empire, whose armies had destroyed Jerusalem’s Temple of Solomon in his lifetime.
For those who may know their Biblical history, I want to note that scholars now agree that John of Patmos is a different person from John the Evangelist. Also, the Book of Revelation was the last addition to the most widely used version of the Christian Bible.
The next part of the exhibition features medieval illustrations of the pinnacle of the Book of Revelation—the Last Judgment. According to Revelation, at the end of the Apocalypse, Jesus returns in a heavenly form and presides in judgement over all humans, deciding if people are going to Heaven and eternal salvation, or Hell.
This is a page from a Book of Hours, made in about 1400. A Book of Hours served as an individual’s personal devotional or prayer book. It would have belonged to an aristocrat or noble person who could afford something so fine. This illustration shows Jesus at the time of Judgement. Below him are mortals, nude and vulnerable, some even rising from the grave. Jesus has the wounds of his crucifixion exposed as a way of reminding the humans of his suffering. On one side of Jesus, you see the Virgin Mary and on the other John the Evangelist. These two holy people are imploring for mercy on behalf of humanity. For medieval Europeans, the Virgin Mary was particularly appealing. She was a symbol of hope and compassion, who could act as an intermediary on behalf of imperfect humans.
Images like these were important, because before the modern printing press was invented in 1450, the written word was not widely accessible. Information was primarily shared through oral tradition and the visual art that surrounded people.
I also want to note that many of the images we’ve seen were created when church authority was centralized, affording to the institution great power and wealth in medieval Europe. With great power and wealth comes corruption and the Church was not immune to this truism.
The next two pieces show some of the horrible beasts that come before the Last Judgement, which according to Revelation is precluded by war and epic battles between good and evil. These are woodblock prints from a fifteen page book that illustrated apocalyptic scenes. The book and prints were created by the northern Renaissance master, Albrecht Durer. Because they were woodblocks, he was able to create many copies that he sold and distributed around Europe. These two images featured some of the most terrible beasts from Revelation—the Whore of Babylon and the Four Horsemen of Death, Famine, Pestilence, and War. The beasts are confronting worldly sin in the form of aristocrats, the elite, and even priests as indicated by their dress. Remember what I said about corruption in the church? By Durer’s time, there were many deeply religious people who had grown angry at the greed of the church and its officials. Durer played into this sentiment in his work, using the powerful images of Revelation to lodge judgment against the people whom he and many others viewed as sinful and corrupt. These pieces were created in 1498, which was only a couple of decades before the Reformation and Martin Luther’s theses that spilt the Church into Catholic and Protestant factions.
Our final section of the exhibition contemplates the role of Jerusalem. The city features prominently in John of Patmos’s Revelation, and In the Middle Ages, Jerusalem was a holy city for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, as it still is today.
These two beautiful stone carvings once graced the walls of a church. They depict the historic figure, Helena, the mother of the 4th-century Roman emperor Constantine. Constantine was the first Roman emperor to legalize Christianity, and his mother Helena helped him to build churches and recover early holy sites.
Here Helena is in Jerusalem looking for the one true cross with her soldiers and priests. The true cross was the cross used to crucify Jesus. By Constantine’s time it had long been lost to years of war and destruction in Jerusalem.
According to the legend, after digging through rubble, Helena and her helpers found three crosses. Through divine providence Helena sensed which had belonged to Jesus. A priest took the selected cross and waved it above a corpse, miraculously raising the dead. This depiction, made in the 1400s, long after Helena’s lifetime, highlights the importance of resurrection in Christian belief, and it firmly situates Jerusalem in the narrative of the church.
The last work that I will feature is in the contemporary section of the exhibition.
As we have seen, the images from Revelation have been used to inspire fear or to envision salvation since John of Patmos wrote his book. This artwork was created by Howard Finster, a preacher and visionary artist from north Georgia in the United States. Finster believed that he had a direct line of communication with God resembling earlier instances of apocalyptic prophecy. His art was his way of communicating his visions. He was a prolific artist, making sculptures, drawings, and paintings right up to his death in 2010. This piece is from 1984. Look at the imagery in the context of what you have already seen. You may notice similarities with the medieval mindset. Finster is showing us modern machinery like spaceships and helicopters as heavenly visions with a contemporary spin. We are invited to consider our world through this nod to a medieval lens.
Thank you for taking this brief tour of our exhibition, Visions of the End, with me. On behalf of all of us here at the McClung Museum and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, I wish you and your loved ones good health and wellbeing.