Friday, February 5, 2016


 from Dürer's Illustrated Apocalypse

Online Renaissance has posted a video series on Abrecht Dürer's Illustrated Apocalypse and one on the fourteenth-century Cloisters Apocalypse.

At the heart of the renaissance ideal is the intellectual and spiritual unity of mankind. We already see this in Dante, where the Hebrew Bible, the philosophy of  Aristotle, Christian belief, and trace elements of Islamic thought as well, are all woven together into a unified poetic vision — despite some very real incongruities. Dante implicitly avowed the shared inner light of the different traditions.

In the full flowering of Renaissance thought, a century after Dante, the hermeticists pursued a fusion of all the "religions of the book" — Christianity, poorly understood Kabbalistic Judaism and and Orientalizing fantasy of Islam — along with a certain amount of astrology and other odd lore — were seen as aspects of the primordial  truth. It was a very amateur attempt, but also a very loving and right-minded one.

Though the details of the grand synthesis then attempted are often ridiculous (though just as often quite picturesque), the dream of truly international and cross-cultural civilization is one worth preserving in the forefront of our thought. In mathematics, chess, and music, the project is abundantly achieved.

from the Cloisters Apocalypse

It would be worth our while to think also about the religious dimension. Though in our time religion has been greatly discredited, and is almost universally identified with bigotry and a backward social agenda, man is by his nature a spiritual creature. The longing for a level of existence which is true, lasting, valid and meaningful is inseparable from who we are as humans, and from what is best in us.

It is our especial duty now, in the face of Islamic fundamentalism, to increase our awareness of the Islamic heritage, to which we owe algebra, the poetry of Rumi, and the greatest calligraphy ever developed for a non-ideographic language. Likewise, the Jewish intellectual tradition deserves careful attention — one it has been denied by the growing vogue for Jewish mysticism.

The Jews, (with the Hindus, the ancient Egyptians, and  the Chinese), are in that small group of peoples who have elaborated their thought for three thousand years of continuous literary tradition. To be content with a cursory reading of the Hebrew Bible, and superficial opinions regarding the State of Israel, is to miss the very heart of the Western religious tradition — a heart which Dante fully acknowledged, far beyond the limits of what anyone could expect of a thirteenth century European.

Likewise, Christianity itself is nowadays woefully short-changed, as often as it is judged by its more intolerant exponents.

The point here is that the real renaissance person will learn eagerly of the three traditions mentioned (and probably explore even further afield). 

The book of the Revelation is a wonderful example of late Jewish Apocalyptic literature,which drew on the whole maelstrom of late antique middle eastern mythology. And it was abundantly and startlingly illustrated by the some of the greatest (and most ignored) painters of Europe. It will be our project to bring to greater awareness this fabulous wealth of images and ideas.

And, it should be borne in mind, the Koran is one extended Apocalypse: Doomsday is the single most elaborated theme in the entire book, and derives from Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic traditions, which Mohammad encountered in oral, folkloric form. It could well be argued that and understanding of the Apocalypse is the key to understanding Islam, which describes itself as "the faith of those who believe in Allah and the Last Day."    

Beatus of Libana Apocalypse

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