Between Heaven and Hell: Imagining the Apocalypse in Northern Renaissance Art
Throughout the ages, the fear of the impending doom of the Apocalypse has played a persistent role in the creative expression of the artist. The Renaissance, an age of uncertainty and of great social, political and religious change, is no exception. Pieter Bruegel the Elder was an artist at the very heart of these great upheavals. Situating Bruegel amongst the chaos brings to light how imagining the end of the world may have contributed to many of the artistic developments of the time. In an age where Apocalyptic thought was rife, it is clear how this could have had an impact upon the work of Bruegel, his contemporaries and his artistic forefathers. Thus, while focusing primarily on Bruegel’s Fall of the Rebel Angels (1561), this essay will also draw upon a sample of Northern Renaissance interpretations of the Apocalypse.
Imagining the Apocalypse Pre 1500
In order to understand Bruegel’s Fall of the Rebel Angels in its sixteenth century context, it is necessary to delve a little further back in time to explore the nature of Apocalyptic thought in the fifteenth century. Embedded within the Bible are numerous references to the end of days. Forming a central part of Christian eschatology, the Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse, is the last book of the New Testament. The Apocalypse narrates the revelations that Saint John the Evangelist received on the island of Patmos. The Apocalypse is illuminated with terrifying and symbolic descriptions of catastrophic events prophesised to unfold in the last days and was understood as the literal truth. As Carole Straw writes, for Christians,
“The Apocalypse would be that critical moment of resolution when good would be rewarded and evil punished. Only after that final reckoning would equity, justice, and harmony prevail, when accounts had been settled and each had rendered his due”.
Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Early Modern era, the text was widely circulated through illuminated manuscripts, church portals and panel paintings all attempting to interpret the words and symbols embedded in Saint John’s prophesy.  As Marler and Moulton suggest, “apocalyptic delusions were manifest in the extreme” . Indeed, the apocalyptic mentality that had came out of the Middle Ages saturated early Northern Renaissance thought. It is therefore no wonder that interpretations of the Apocalypse were common in artworks of the time.
Approaching the year 1500, fears of the cataclysmic events of the Apocalypse re-emerged. It was to be the half-millennium, a possible date for the impending end of time. Indeed, the increasing proficiency and availability of printing technology allowed the likes of Albrecht Dürer to publish his Apocalypse series of woodcuts of 1498. This series of woodcuts accompanied with the text of the Apocalypse served to visualise the passages of the Revelation. For example, Saint Michael Fighting the Dragon (1498) was a visual depiction of the following passage from the Book of Revelation (12:7-9);
“There was war in the sky. Michael and his angels made war on the dragon. The dragon and his angels made war. The great dragon was thrown down, the old serpent, he who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world. He was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”
Dürer’s Apocalypse was revolutionary, and was illustrated in both Latin and German. Yet, as Marian Smith concedes “Dürer’s Apocalypse did not so much start a tradition as loosen men from tradition”. It was representative of a move toward the originality and individuality of the artist, rather than a depiction of a common vision; “The Apocalypse of John was no longer viewed as simple fact to be shown to mankind”. Thus, Dürer’s Apocalypse may have been an inspiration for men such as Bruegel to explore the apocalyptic theme within his own vision.
The Apocalypse is also defined by a cosmic dualism that splits the world between the forces of good and evil, Heaven and Hell. Hieronymus Bosch, perhaps Bruegel’s strongest influence, produced a number of triptychs that elucidated this theme. Indeed, Wilhelm Fraenger describes Bosch’s work as “a kind of pictorial Malleus Maleficarum into which all the superstitious fear of the waning Middle Ages was compressed”. In particular, the Haywain triptych, ambiguously dated between 1490 and 1502, presents a narrative progression beginning with the expulsion of the rebel angels from Heaven and the events of Eden in the left panel, to the explicit sins of mankind in the central panel, to a lucid and eerie depiction of Hell in the right wing panel. As with many of Bosch’s works, Haywain acts as a warning, depicting human folly and sin as if it were a direct pathway to Hell and the evil that presides there. Yet the duality of Heaven and Hell also suggests a balance, which of course, is weighed in the Christian concept of the Last Judgement. The Last Judgement is inexorably tied to the discourse of salvation that is put forth in the Book of Revelation (20:11-12). Bosch’s work and innovative demonology is “posed within a bottomless world of pious fear”, where the threat of damnation is used as a moral reminder of the sins of mankind. As will be shown, Bosch’s legacy was engrained in later depictions of similar themes, especially when the Apocalypse came once more to the forefront in the turmoil of the sixteenth century. Indeed, it was but one year after the artist’s death that Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
Politics, Economics, Religion and the Apocalypse in the Sixteenth Century
Bruegel lived in a dynamic century. In addition to the ferment of activity he would have experienced living in Brussels and later Antwerp, which were the greatest commercial, financial, artistic, intellectual hubs of Europe at the time, Bruegel would have also witnessed the advance of Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anabaptism and the corresponding persecution and censorship of the Catholic Church. The dynamic mix of social, economic, political and religious activity would have been fertile ground for the creative expression of Northern Renaissance artists of the time.
Perhaps the greatest upheaval of the sixteenth century was the Protestant Reformation. In 1517, Martin Luther began organising the Reformation of the Church in neighbouring Germany, which ultimately spread to the Netherlands and ignited unrest. Once more, the printing press enabled the dispersal of the ideas of the Reformation, and art also played a role in attaching notions of the Apocalypse to Rome and the Pope. In 1527, giving force to the Protestant movement, the armies of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, sacked Rome. This sparked a number of revolts all over Europe. By 1545 Europe was divided, and the Wars of Religion ensued. Amidst the chaos, thus began the era of Bruegel.
The Apocalyptic theme was already heavily engrained in Northern Renaissance art by the time Bruegel emerged around the 1550’s. Yet the trauma that had promulgated this kind of thinking was far from over, and, as Irving Zupnick suggests, “the political events between 1559 and 1564 were of the sort to stir up any Netherlander”. After Phillip II inherited the crown of Spain and the Netherlands, the histories of the two nations were intertwined. Phillip II took more of a rigorous stance against heresy and political unrest, and as a result, the Low Lands essentially became the stage for numerous religious and political revolts between Protestants and Catholics. Artworks painted after 1565, such as The Harvest (1565), exemplify Bruegel’s turn in attention to creating works with more neutral subject matters, perhaps in order to avoid persecution. The Harvest, a harmonious and peaceful landscape painting, hardly suggests any of the unrest of the time. Thus, Bruegel could have been a “cautious man” and living in a time where “free and open expression of certain ideas could mean death” was enough to force him into pioneering the landscape genre. Yet, his works before 1565 are more overt in nature. In particular Fall of the Rebel Angels of 1562 and Dulle Griet of 1561. Indeed, one interpretation of these works suggests that the emulation of Bosch through apocalyptic battles and chaotic hell-like themes of both of these paintings could have been covert vessels for the moral criticism of the repressive Spanish government. A recent interpretation of Dulle Griet has attributed the painting to the ninth chapter of the Apocalypse, in which “humanity and the earth, once the seventh seal has been broken, are ravaged by evil, while anger, greed, licentiousness, and ruin are rampant”. The ontological composition of the Fall of the Rebel Angels, in turn, narrates a message the triumph of good over evil, the fall from perfection to imperfection and the nature of evil itself. Yet, the ironical overtones suggest an element of foolishness and satire. In this way, Bruegel was able to harness the mentality of Apocalyptic thought that existed in Northern Renaissance art and use it to condemn the harshness of the Spanish, equating them to Satan.
It seems that in the mid-to-late sixteenth century illustrations of the Apocalypse were omnipresent in Northern Renaissance art. Frans Floris’ portrayal of The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1554) and Jan Mandijn’s The Last Judgement (1550) are a mere sample of the vast collection of works depicting Apocalyptic themes. In the same way as Bruegel, these artists were building upon a precedent of apocalyptic art from the likes of Bosch and Dürer. Mandjin was just one of a vast array of artists who also employed the use of Boschian imagery. His illustration of The Last Judgement employs a dualistic approach, with an Apocalyptic, hell-ridden landscape in the foreground contrasted with the golden-glowing, weightless figures of Christ and his heavenly entourage in the sky. While using a looser style, Mandijn emulates Bosch in his depiction of devilish creatures. Alternatively, Frans Floris’ Fall of the Rebel Angels is rather more Italianate, yet still encompasses the same chaotic inferno and triumph over evil as Bruegel’s depiction of the same passage from the Book of Revelation. Nonetheless, both Mandjin and Floris were operating in the same tumultuous religious and political worlds as Bruegel. It would not be outlandish to suggest that they too could have been alluding to the events occurring around them.
Bruegel’s exploration of the Apocalypse in Fall of the Rebel Angels is a window into sixteenth century thought. Approaching 1500 many people believed that the end of days was nigh, the notion of which is embodied in Dürer’s Apocalypse series and Bosch’s Haywain triptych. Dürer and Bosch, in many ways, set a precedent for Bruegel in allowing for an individual approach to portraying the Apocalypse and imagining the duality between heaven and hell respectively. Yet, when Bruegel emerged as an artist around the mid sixteenth century, millennial fear was no longer a driving factor. Instead, the social, political and religious turmoil caused by the Protestant Reformation created a new wave of apocalyptic thought. After 1565, the turmoil in the Netherlands may have even pushed Bruegel into an exploration of landscape (i.e. The Harvest of 1565) as a neutral subject with the watchful eyes of the Spanish rulers. But before this date, Bruegel’s works, such as Dulle Griet and Fall of the Rebel Angels were more explicit and were potentially condemning the repression and turmoil caused by the Spanish in the Netherlands through an association with Apocalyptic and hellish themes. A reflection of the tumultuous period may have inspired other works at the time, such as Frans Floris’ Fall of the Rebel Angels and Jan Mandijn’s Last Judgement. Thus, The tumultuous world of the Northern Renaissance provided a prolific space whereby the likes of Bruegel, his predecessors and his contemporaries, could explore one of the most persistent and fear-instilling phenomenon of human thought; the fear of the end of days. Indeed, though exploring the visual culture of the Apocalypse we may be able to garner further understanding about our own modern anxieties and uncertainties.
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