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The Carolingians and the Idea of the Apocalypse

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The idea of a kingdom of God on the Earth comes from the Jewish thought, when Israel became prey to the regional powers of the Middle East after their return of Exile, between the 2nd century B.C. and the 2nd century A.D., as the Jews at that time lost hope into any national restoration. Jews thus came to wish that the action of God would restore the antique power of Israel as, through victory upon ennemies, and the Messiah -the savior- that would lead to the reign of God and Israel on Earth. That messianic rule would then be followed by the renovation of the world and an universal resurrection. Such ideas are found, for example, in the apocalyptic texts of the Old Testament, like the book of Henoch, or the fourth book of Ezra. Those messianic ideas were still much vivid by the times of Christ. The teachings of Christ however are in a rupture with such thinking as they are announcing a mere spiritual reign of God, which is freeing Man from sin. No more millenarianism thus. It's solely with the 'Revelation' of John that a Christian text is back to those ideas and seems to come back close to the Jewish texts. In that text, a term of thousand years occurs after that God vainquished a first time the Devil, and then the Devil takes back to fight and is definitively defeated, opening to the Last Judgment and thus to the real and definitive reign of God over a rejuvenated Universe. That Christian version of the Apocalypse not only is a reign of God on Earth but a step -a final one- of the ultimate unleashing of the forces of Evil against God

Despite that renewed version of the Apocalypse, the ancient conceptions of it, linked to the Jewish thought, lasted however as a number of Christians, especially in Asia Minor, did link the Apocalypse of John and the earthly kingdom of the Jewish Messiah. Such a millenarianism, became the basis for numerous heresies. The Church, mainly through Origen, in the 3rd century A.D. -and his neo-platonician explanation of the Scriptures- eventually had that tendency to disappear. Such a disappearance was mainly felt in the East as Origen was much influential there and the millenarianism like an heresy came to an end. In the wester parts of the Roman empire, on the other hand, this 'earthly' millenarianism lasted more a long time, getting mingled too with the concept of 'golden age' of the Pagan authors and being a certain response of the communities to the harsh persecutions triggered by the authorities. Still in the 5th century, Augustine was for a time a proponent of such haeretic millenarianist views. He however came to be the designer of the official posture of the Western Church of the point, bringing it to an end, like Origen had done in the East. The council of Ephesus (431) moreover decided to officially condemn any litteral conception of the millenium, that idea that the Devil should reappear 1,000 years after the beginnings of the Christian era. The Revelation of John further, in the West, didn't become as much suspect as it had became for the Christians of the East as Augustine, about it, commended the commentary of it by Tychonius, although the latter was a schismatic Donatist. It's those Augustinian theories which lasted into the Carolingian times. Augustine, on the other hand, constructed the theory of the 'two cities', the 'Celestial City', already living with the promises of the Revelation, and the 'Earthly City', not living with them. Those two cities coexisted, inside the Church, until the End of Time occur

Apocalyptic concepts, generally, may lead altogether to the idea of a strong conception of a State power -bringing order on the Earth- but too to more 'democratic' -and liberal- conceptions bringing to radical attitudes when facing earthly injustices. To those, moreover, various elements were added, as developed by Church to get into its theories the idea of the empire. The Roman emperor, as soon as Constantine I, becomes a barrier against the Antichrist, the 'Last Emperor' further, reigning during 120 years before the coming of it. A computation of the Times, imprinted unto the 6 days of Creation and the 7th of Sabbath and rest brought to a definition of a chronology of the world into 6,000 years. The Incarnation was deemed to have occurred in the year 5,500 B.C. and the 6,000 years, thus the End of Times, were thought to come to by the year 500 A.D. The troubles of the end of the Roman empire obviously did not question those views but St. Jerome and Augustine (on the same path than his condemnation of the millenarianism like a heresy) did re-computed the chronology and moved the 5,500 years back to 5,200, thus bringing to an End of Times by the year 800 A.D. only. Thence, it seems like millenarianism reappeared after the fall of the Roman empire in the context of the return of paganism in the countryside during the disorders of the Merovingian times, like told by Gregory of Tours. As far as the Carolingians are concerned, the year 800 was so the new date for the End of Times. It thus became necessary for the dynasty to re-set the time frame again, with the 5,200 years moved to 5,000. The Venerable Bede and other Carolingian theologians thus had the new date of the Judgment to the Millenium. The fact that Irene, a women, reigned in Byzantium, and the coronation too of the year 800 however remained colored with the anguish of the coming Times (see too, in that sense, the symbolics of the dome of the Palatine Chapel). The revival of the Empire in its western part, further, marked the transport to the West of the whole ancient, Roman symbolics, in terms of Apocalypse, of what the emperor meant. Charlemagne thus did become the detentor of the concept of the 'Last Emperor'. When, at the end of the Carolingian times, the year 1,000 did approach, no new computation of the chronology of the End of Times was computed. That just led to the famed episode then of millenarianism, the one of the Millenium, with the belief that the Antichrist reign was close, and the Last Judgment. That why, for example, that Otto III had the tumb of Charlemagne opened in the year 1,000, stressing the imperial continuity and that the empire was the last fortress against the Antichrist and that's why too that gave way to a second aspect of that millenarianism, the one of the 'Peace of God', a move which came from the people and the clerics as it arose from the profound disorders of the feudal times then. Historians however divide upon whether those fears of the year 1,000 A.D. as some did only saw there a myth, which had been born in the 16th century and re-taken by those of the Romanticist era -and even by contemporary ones like French Georges Duby; sources of those times on a other hand, are showing that clerics and laymen were watching the signs of that change of millenium. During the first millenium A.D., a view of what was to happen by the End of Times had been built on the base of the Apocalypse and other texts from the Scriptures. The last step was occur during seven years in Jerusalem as a "last emperor" was to leave his regalia on the Mount of Olives. Two prophets, then, Henoch and Elie were to come back Earth and prepare the faithfull to the last confrontation with the Antechrist. The Antechrist was to reign during 3 years and half and he would re-build the Temple and have himself adored and martyrising those who would not adhere to him. Christ was eventually to return Earth and kill the Antechrist, as that return was to herald the Last Judgment. The most detailed form of those views was reached in a treaty, 'About the Coming of The Age of The Antechrist,' by Adson of Montier-en-Der (ab. 930-992 A.D.). On a other hand, the epoch had not still seen the generalization of the 'Christian era,' as defined about 500 A.D. by the monk Denys Exiguus relative to the birth of Christ, like a time system of reference. As the End of Times had not occurred however, that question eventually dissolve more or less into history as the sign, or the announcements of the End of Times did not cease, on the other hand. Since the Renaissance, millenarianism -and not taking into account its strong influence among Protestants- tended to be mostly expressed into secular versions like, most lately, marxism or nazism, for example

The Palatine Chapel, in Aachen, was deviced by reference to the City of God as depicted in the Revelation. The external dimensions of the cupola is of 144 Carolingian feet as the Celestial Jerusalem is worth 144 cubits. The cupola itself was describing the Christ according to the Revelation of John and the 24 Elders. Other mosaics also featured sceneries of the End of Times. Or the throne of Charlemagne was located to the West of the church. It has too to be noted that a pineapple was placed at the summit of the dome, a symbole of eternal life, which was found too in the entrance garden to the basilica of St. Peter, in Rome. The rotunda, like applied by the Palatine Chapel, is a ancient form of architecture, which is refering to primodial symbolics. As it is often encountered in the Mediterranean area, and linked to the birth or death -and often too to the sacred and meaning, the rotunda was the shape of Christ's (the Saint-Sépulchre in Jerusalem, as soon as under the Byzantines) and Mary's thumb. The Carolingians, as they took back that round shape for their Marial rotundae, or the 'beata Maria rotunda,' likely allowed the continuation of such a architectural form which will eventually be found again with the Romanesque, or even Gothic chevets. The Carolingian era moreover, like in Wurzburg, Aachen or St-Riquier, by the last two decades of the 8th century, developed the role of the rotunda like a place for relics and a place representative of power. Such different functions -relics, political representation, Marial symbol- are expressed by the Carolingian builders through the different levels of the construction, simply, the crypt included. In the Palatine Chapel in Aachen, for example, the lower level is holding a altar dedicated to Virgin Mary, with a reliquary as the upper level is a altar dedicated to Christ. The cupola, as far as it is concerned, for example, is representing the Apocalypse's Elders, a image of the Last Judgment!

As far as the fine arts are concerned, first representations of the Last Judgment occur in the West about 800 A.D. only and then in the Byzantine world, a century later, about 900 A.D. in Cappadocia or northern Greece. The Carolingian era features the start of private devotion as laymen are allowed to possess a Psalter. That book, the collection of the Bible's psalms, allowed them to train in reading, and they used it too for meditation or their entertainment. The psalters of the time thus came to be illustrated, among others, with illustrations of the Last Judgment, which came in addition to those illustrating the psalms strictly. Such illustrations about the Last Judgment however are not found back within the books containing the text of John's Apocalypse self, like the Evangelaries, for example. The psalters, like a liturgical book, came before the Breviary -which is equivalent to a Book of Hours. The Duke of Friul, for example, was reknowned at the time, for possessing several private psalters. Are well known too, for the Carolingian era, the Psalter of Utrecht, or the Psalter of Stuttgart. According to the conception of the Church, the current times, which are just the historical times elapsing until the End of Time are placed under the authority of the Church, and the earthly kings. The theme of the Apocalypse, at the Carolingian era, had been somewhat discarded by the exegetes and the predicators since the 6th century. The renewal of interest for the Apocalypse under the Carolingians came in a decisive way from the Christian northern Spain where, for example, Beatus, a monk of the monastery of Liebana, near Santander, wrote a "Commentary of the Apocalypse" about 780 A.D. Other commentaries are extant too, like one by Alcuin, or by a monk from Beneventum. The copists when copying the text of the Apocalypse in the scriptoria, were often adding the one of those commentaries too. About the Devil in arts, generally, any pictorial representation did not appear before the Apocalypse was definitively included in the canon of Scriptures, by 635 A.D. In the East, icons then just depicted the Devil in a few episodes only, like the Temptation of Christ, for example as it was idealized into a handsome man with long curved nails. Through the book and illustrations of Beatus, which became a thrilling success during the end of the Early Middle Ages, the Devil was reintroduced since the year 1,000 A.D. under a skin-haired, bestial and terrifying aspect

Website Manager: G. Guichard, site Learning and Knowledge In the Carolingian Times / Erudition et savoir à l'époque carolingienne, Page Editor: G. Guichard. last edited: 12/28/2010. contact us at