What did the apocalypse look like in 1550?
The Book of Miracles is a spectacular, vivid depiction of the end of the world. Biblical prophecies share pages with monsters, deformed animals, and flying dragons.
The book was created by an unknown artist in Augsburg, Germany, around 1555, and it was only rediscovered in the early 21st century, appearing at a German auction house in 2007. The terrifying – and beautiful – apocalyptic art in The Book of Miracles is a vivid reminder of the horrors of the Renaissance, when religious wars, invasions, plagues, famines, and witches terrorized Europe.
The key to understanding Renaissance apocalypse art is reading the meaning behind the images – many of the wondrous and frightening events depicted in The Book of Miracles were thought to be signs directly from God. When God sent dragons and blood rain, it was clear evidence of divine wrath, which struck terror into the heart of people like the anonymous artist who created this beautiful catalogue of the apocalypse.
The Book of Miracles includes images that are directly taken from the Bible’s Book of Revelation, which predicts the Apocalypse. In this image, a sea monster with multiple heads, all wearing crowns, and a beast with lamb’s horns attack a group of praying people as fireballs hurl down from the sky. But those people aren’t so innocent – they falsely worshipped the beasts, damning their souls.
As the Biblical passage in Revelation 13 explains, the sea monster has 10 horns and seven heads, with 10 crowns on its horns. The beast would rule the earth for 42 months, blaspheming God and waging war against true Christians.
The lamb might also look innocent, but it speaks like a dragon and causes fire to rain down from heaven, as shown in the image. The not-so-innocent lamb would also force everyone to receive the mark of the beast – the number 666.
The Apocalypse is bad – real bad. But just how bad will it get, according to the artist of The Book of Miracles? In this image, the artist recreates a scene from Revelation 11, where a beast emerges from the abyss and attacks humanity. The beast will leave bodies lying in the public square of the city, and no one will bury the bodies. Instead, the Bible predicts that crowds will gather to stare at the bodies for three-and-a-half days.
In this gruesome scene from The Book of Miracles, the artist captures the moment when the hideous beast chews on a man’s head while others simply watch. The monster's trail of victims lies on the ground with no one attending to their bodies. At a time when receiving a Christian burial was critically important, leaving bodies unattended was a horrible fate. Of course, if it’s already the Apocalypse; you probably have bigger things to worry about.
Artists in the Renaissance were obsessed with the Apocalypse. And they weren’t the only ones. Preachers also warned that the end times were near. This was part of a trend in the Renaissance that imagined the Devil as increasingly powerful. This was a major change from the medieval period, during which Satan's powers were seen as limited. Consider Dante’s Inferno – in the very depths of hell, Satan was trapped in ice, powerless to do anything except gnash his teeth.
But in the 1400s, that kind of thinking changed. One preacher, Bernardino of Siena, argued that the Devil was growing more powerful every day. Bernardino explained that in the early years of Christianity, the blood of Jesus Christ was still very hot, which protected his followers. Bernardino warned, “Our faith has grown cool because of our sins, and therefore we are much more in danger.”
The Reformation put the Apocalypse at the forefront of people’s minds. As the unity of the Catholic Church splintered for the first time in over 1,000 years, millions of Christians feared that they had lost God’s favor, and the end of times was coming. Many Catholics claimed that Martin Luther himself was the Antichrist, while others proclaimed that the pope took the title.
The author of The Book of Miracles wrote in Augsburg, a central flashpoint for religious wars. Augsburg is where the Lutherans formed their statement of faith, the Augsburg Confession, and it is where Holy Roman Emperor Charles V finally agreed to the Peace of Augsburg, which allowed Lutherans and Catholics to co-exist in Germany. Augsburg itself, a free Imperial city, had a mix of both Catholics and Protestants.
These religious changes heightened anxiety among Europe's Christians, as both sides feared God's wrath. Was God angry at the Lutherans for breaking from the Catholic Church? Or was he furious with the Catholics for their religious leadership? Both sides tried to read God's mood in nature – by interpreting strange signs like blood rain, monstrous births, and flying dragons as prophecies.
A burning stick flying through the air or an eclipse had to be interpreted to understand God's message.