Picturing the End of Time: The Illustrated Commentaries on the Apocalypse from Medieval Spain

Illustrated manuscripts based on Beatus of Liébana’s commentary on the Apocalypse offer a unique window into a time when the fragility of life focused the minds of monks and men on not only the immediate afterlife but also on the time beyond time.

Beatus of Liébana - Silos Codex

What are commonly referred to as “Beatus manuscripts” are a group of twenty-seven illustrated commentaries on the Book of Apocalypse by Beatus of Liébana. These manuscripts, all in Latin, were produced between the last quarter of the ninth century through the first half of the thirteenth century.

The dedication of physical and human resources to creating so many rich copies of Beatus of Liébana’s text demonstrates the importance placed on spiritual salvation and the reckoning of the soul. These aspects remain timeless and to experience one of these manuscripts is as poignant today as it must have been a millennium ago.

The vast majority were made in northern Spain, the early works being Asturian and Leónese, the later being Castillian. Most are extensively illustrated with brightly colored, detailed pictures showing the events of the Apocalypse and abounding with monsters, angels, and the famous Four Horsemen. It is a rich and unique manuscript tradition that spans over three centuries and reflects the ongoing religious, cultural and political strife of medieval Spain.

Beatus of Liébana and his Commentary on the Book of Apocalypse

Beatus of Liébana - Valcavado Codex

Beatus of Liébana was a monk who was born ca. 730 and lived and wrote in the Kingdom of Asturias until his death ca. 800. He was highly influential in eighth-century Christian philosophy as a teacher to Alcuin of York and influential politically in his role as the confessor to the Asturian royalty. He was a powerful opponent of the Adoptionist Christology debated at the time, that argued Christ was the adopted son of God thus denying the Incarnation.

His most famous work is his commentary on the Book of Apocalypse, written in 779 and revised in 784 and 786. The commentary was widely read throughout western Europe and Beatus of Liébana’s somewhat cynical but hopeful message flavored with contemporary similes and sayings make the work personal and relatable thus adding to its popularity.

The Beatus Model

The earliest Beatus manuscript was almost certainly illustrated and served as a model, direct or indirect, for all that followed. This initial manuscript likely adapted iconographic conventions from early Christian Apocalypse images, as preserved in the Trier Apocalypse.

The illustrative cycle of a prototypical Beatus manuscript includes 108 canonical images, seven images relating to the commentary text including the mappa mundi, eight prefatory images of the evangelists, fourteen pages of diagrams charting the Geneology of Christ and a final eleven illustrations for the Commentary on Daniel. Additional images such as the Alpha and Omega were often added.

The three dozen surviving Beatus manuscripts and folio fragments are kept in libraries and cathedrals throughout western Europe and North America. Although few can read the calligraphic Latin text, the illustrations bursting with their colorful beauty and monstrosity are as enigmatic and engaging as ever.

Although there is a well-understood model for manuscripts based on Beatus of Liébana’s commentary on the Apocalypse, each copy is unique and presented the illustrations with their own format, colorations, and inclusions.

Picturing the Apocalypse

The fantastic events of the last days have piqued the imagination of artists throughout the Middle Ages. The partnership of the apocalyptic text, Beatus of Liébana’s commentary, and its images is central to the Beatus manuscripts. While they can certainly function as textual rubrics or visualizations for the memory, they are not merely straightforward illustrations, nor could they be with such creatures as beasts with seven heads and places such as heavenly cities.

Indeed, they served as guides for the imagination of future calamity and unmaking, providing a concrete starting point for ruminations on what is to come. Indeed, Maius, the illuminator of the Morgan Beatus, wrote

I have painted in series pictures for the wonderful words of its stories, so that the wise may fear the coming of the future judgment of the world’s end.

Early Beatus Manuscripts and the Mozarabic Style

Beatus of Liébana - Lorvao Codex

There are thirty-five surviving manuscripts, both complete and fragmentary, of Beatus of Liébana’s Commentary on the Book of Apocalypse. Of these, twenty-seven are illustrated and serve as important records of the distinctive Mozarabic style.

Nine survive from the tenth century. Their unusual style is due to the combining of influences from Carolingian and Islamic Iberian sources. The rubrication, interlaced initials, figural illustration, and minuscule script follow practices of manuscript production from Insular and Carolingian monasteries, yet stylistic details such as horseshoe arches in depictions of architecture and the preference for geometric rather than vegetal patterns are influences drawn from the Islamic Iberian peninsula.

Bold, earthy colors and a distinctive figural style create a unique pictorial tradition.

Late Beatus Manuscripts and Royal Patronage

Beatus of Liébana - Huelga Codex

Where early Beatus manuscripts tended to be of monastic origin and for monastic use, copies of the later twelfth through the thirteenth centuries, while still monastic in origin, enjoyed royal patronage. The more uniform Mozarabic style gave way to other influences, especially the Byzantine influence in western Romanesque art and later the International Style of the French court.

Instead of executing faithful copies of both text and illustration, this later group sees greater divergence in artistic style from their predecessors. This gives late Beatus manuscripts a greater resemblance to other early Gothic works from European areas—such as England and France—rather than being distinctively Spanish in style. Examples of comparative material include the Bible of Manerius (Paris, Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève, 0008) and A bestiary with additions from Gerald of Wales’s Topographia Hibernica (BL Harley MS 4751).

A Unique Italian Beatus

The exception to the rules for medieval Beatus commentaries is the Berlin Beatus (Berlin, Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz, MS Thol. lat. Fol.51).

Beatus of Liébana - Berlin Codex

This manuscript dates to the 12th century and is the only extant illustrated Beatus originating in Italy. Because of this, it preserves an Italo-Byzantine tradition of apocalyptic iconography.

One image on f.76 has no parallels to any tradition. It depicts an enthroned and crowned man touching the forehead of the leader of a group of men. This may depict the Beast of the Earth, an interpretation that suggests this figure will be an earthly ruler and not a fantastic creature.

Extant Illustrated Beatus Manuscripts

Manuscripts are listed in chronological order, and links have been added to those available in facsimile.

Manuscript (Shelfmark)  DateSize (cm) Scribe/Illuminator/Origin
Silos Fragment (Silos, Biblioteca del Monasterio de Santo Domingo, frag. 4)  875-90030.5×25.0 Unknown (S/I)

Morgan Beatus (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, M. 644)  940-94538.7×28.5 Unknown (S)
Maius (I)

Vitrina 14-1 Beatus (Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS Vit. 14-1)  940-96034.5×25.7 Unknown (S/I)

Castile or Kingdom of León
Valladolid Beatus (Valladolid, Biblioteca de la Universidad, MS 433)  8 June – 8 Sept 97035.0×24.0 Obeco (S/I)

Kingdom of León
Tábara Beatus (Madrid, Archivo Histórico Nacional, Cod. 1097B)  27 July 97036.0×25.5 Monnius (S) Senior (S)
Magius (I) Emeterius (I)

Girona Beatus (Museu de la Catedral de Girona, Num. Inv 7(11))  6 July 97540.0×26.0 Senior (S)
Ende (I)
Emeterius (I)

Vitrina 14-2 fragment (Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS Vit. 14-2)  950-100035.5×23.0 Unknown (S/I)

Kingdom of León
Urgell Beatus (Museu Diocesá de La Seu d’Urgell, Num. Inv. 501)  975-100040.2×26.5 Unknown (S/I)

Kingdom of León
San Millán Beatus (Madrid, Real Academia de la Historia, Cod. Aemil. 33)  975-112535.5×24.0 Unknown (S/I)

Escorial Beatus (Escorial, Biblioteca del Monasterio, &. II.5)  100033.5×22.5 Unknown (S/I)

San Millán de la Cogolla
San Pedro fragment (León, Archivo Parroquiall de Santa Marina la Real de León, sig. ASM (SP))  100010.0×4.5 and
Unknown (S/I)

Kingdom of León
Facundus Beatus (Madrid, Bibioteca Nacional, MS Vitrina 14-2)  104736.0×28.0 Facundus (S/I)

Fanlo Beatus (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, M 1079 (17th c. reprod.))c. 1050 Sancius (S
Unknown (I)

San Millán de la Cogolla
Saint-Sever Beatus (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS lat. 8878)  1050-107536.5×28.0 Unknown (S)
Stephanus (I)
Garsia Placidus (I)

Osma Beatus (Burgo de Osma, Archivo de la Catedral, Cod. 1)  108636.0×22.5 Petrus (S)
Martinus (I)

Turin Beatus (Turin, Biblioteca Nazionale Universitaria, Sgn. I.II.1)  1100-112537.2×29.6 Unknown (S/I)

Silos Beatus (London, British Library, Add. MS 11695)  18 April 1091 – 1 July 110937.8×23.5 Munnio (S)
Dominico (S)
Petrus (I)

Santo Domingo de Silos
Corsini Beathus (Rome, Biblioteca dell’Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei e Corsiniana, 369 (40.E.6))  1100-112516.8×9.3 Unknown (S/I)

Aragónn (S/I)
León Fragment (León, Archivo Histórico Provincial, Perg., Astorga 1)  1140-116039.0×31.0 Unknown (S/I)

Kingdom of León
Berlin Beatus (Berin, Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz, MS Theol. Lat. Fol. 561)  1100-120030.2×19.0 Unknown (S/I)

Central Italy
Rylands Beatus (Manchester, John Rylands University Library, MS lat. 8)  117545.4×32.6 Unknown (S/I)

Region of Burgos
Cardeña Beatus
– (Madrid, Museo Arqueológico Nacional, MS 2)
– (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art (formerly Paris, Coll. Vasselot))
– (Madrid, Coll. Francisco de Zabálburu y Basabe)
– (Girona, Museu d’Art de Girona, Num. Inv. 47 (G))
  118044.5×30.0 Unknown (S/I)
Lorvão Beatus (Lisbon, Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo)  118934.5×24.5 Egeas (S/I)

S. Mammas, Lorvão
Beatus of Navarre (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, nouv. Acq. Lat. 1366)    1150-120035.0×23.0 Unknown (S/I)

Las Huelgas Beatus (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, M. 429)   122053.0×34.0 Unknown (S/I)

Arroyo Beatus
– (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, nouv. Acq. Lat. 2290)
– (New York, Coll. B. H. Breslauer)
  1200-125044.0×30.5 Unknown (S/I)

Rioseco Fragment (Ciudad de México, Archivo General de la Nación, Ilustración 4852)  1200-125049.0×31.0 Unknown (S/I)

Castile, Navarre or Kingdom of León
Beatus of Liébana - Valcavado Codex

Additional Beatus Manuscripts and Fragments

The Spanish publisher Testimonio Compañía Editorial released a facsimile edition in 2009 of the fragments listed below.

Fragment (Shelfmark) DateSize (cm)Scribe/Illuminator/Origin
Barcelona Fragment (Barcelona, Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, Cod. Fragm. 209) 1100-112531.8×22.5Unknown (S)

Velez Beatus (Escorial, Biblioteca del Monasterio, f. I. 7) 1500-160036.5×25.5Unknown (S)

Alobaça Beatus (Lisbon, Biblioteca Nacional, Alobaça 247) 1200-130033.0×22.0Unknown (S)

Montserrat Beatus
– (Montserrat, Biblioteca de la Abadía, 793 III)
– (Valladolid, Archivo de la Real Chancillería, Pergaminos, carpeta 80, n. 9 and 8)
 1000-110030.5×21.6 and
Unknown (S)

Kingdom of León
Poblet Beatus (Salamanca, Biblioteca de la Universidad, ms. 2632) 1150-120032.5×26.5Unknown (S)

Monastery of Poblet
San Pedro fragment (San Pedro de las Dueñas (León), Archivo del Monasterio, fragm. 1)  900-100031.0×21.5Unknown (S)

Kingdom of León
Silos fragment 1-3 (Silos, Biblioteca del Monasterio, fragm. 1-3)  950-100031.0×24.5Unknown (S)

Vatican Beatus (Vatican, Vat. Lat. 7621)  155232.0×23.2Ferdinandus Ruano (S)

Zaragoza fragments (Zaragoza, Collection Canellas + collection particulière)  900-95034.5×24.5Unknown (S)

Monastery of Siresa

General Reference Bibliography

Williams, John. The Illustrated Beatus: Corpus of the Illustrations of the Commentary on the Apocalypse. 5 volumes. London: Harvey Miller, 1994.

The primary source for detailed analysis of all known illustrated Beatus manuscripts and fragments. Reproduces every Beatus illustration. Illustrations primarily black and white. Vol I: Introduction. Vol II: The 9th and 10th Centuries. Vol. III: The 10th and 11th Centuries. Vol. IV: The 11th and 12th Centuries. Vol. V: The 12th and 13th Centuries. In English.

Revenga, Luis, ed. Los Beatus. Exhibition Catalog. Chapelle de Nassau, Bibliothèque royale Albert I, 26 September – 30 November 1985.

Includes table of concordances for Sanders and Neuss designations, Index of principle texts, Index of iconography, and complete text samples. Some color illustrations. In French.

Mundó A. and M. Sánchez Mariana. El Comentario de Beato al Apocalipsis. Catálogo de los códices. Madrid : Joyas Bibliográficas, 1978-1980.

Neuss, Wilhelm. Die Apokalypse Des Hl. Johannes in Der Altspanischen Und Altchristlichen Bibel-Illustration. Das Problem Der Beatushandschriften. [Spanische Forschungen Der Görres-Gesellschaft. Reihe 2. Bd. 2/3]. Münster: 1931.