It’s the End of the World as We Know It: The Apocalypse Gets Visualized in an Inventive Map from 1486

When will the world end?

We can find seri­ous sci­en­tif­ic answers to this ques­tion, depend­ing on what we mean by “world” and “end.” If civ­i­liza­tion as we cur­rent­ly know it, cli­mate sci­en­tists’ worst-case sce­nario points toward some­where around 2100 as the begin­ning of the end. (New York mag­a­zine points out that it “prob­a­bly won’t kill all of us”). It’s pos­si­ble, but not inevitable.

If we mean the end of all life on earth, the fore­cast looks quite a bit rosier: we’ve prob­a­bly got about a bil­lion years, writes astro­physi­cist Jil­lian Scud­der, before the sun becomes “hot enough to boil our oceans.” Still not a cheer­ful thought, but per­haps many more crea­tures will take after the tardi­grade by then. That’s not even to men­tion nuclear war or the epi­demics, zom­bie and oth­er­wise, that could take us out.

But of course, for a not incon­sid­er­able num­ber of people—including a few cur­rent­ly occu­py­ing key posi­tions of pow­er in the U.S.—the ques­tion of the world’s end has noth­ing to do with sci­ence at all but with escha­tol­ogy, that branch of the­o­log­i­cal thought con­cerned with the Apoc­a­lypse.

The­o­log­i­cal thinkers have writ­ten about the Apoc­a­lypse for hun­dreds of years, and the world’s end was fre­quent­ly per­ceived as just around the cor­ner for many of the same rea­sons mod­ern sec­u­lar peo­ple feel apoc­a­lyp­tic dread: dis­ease, nat­ur­al dis­as­ters, wars, rumors of wars, impe­r­i­al pow­er strug­gles, uncom­fort­ably shift­ing demo­graph­ics….

Take 15th-cen­tu­ry Europe, when “the Apoc­a­lypse weighed heav­i­ly on the minds of the peo­ple,” as Bet­sy Mason and Greg Miller write at the Nation­al Geo­graph­ic blog All Over the Map: “Plagues were ram­pant. The once-great cap­i­tal of the Roman empire, Con­stan­tino­ple, had fall­en to the Turks. Sure­ly, the end was nigh.”

While a niche pub­lish­ing mar­ket in the nascent print era pro­duced “dozens of print­ed works” describ­ing the “com­ing reck­on­ing in gory detail… one long-for­got­ten man­u­script depicts the Apoc­a­lypse in a very dif­fer­ent way—through maps.” As you can see here, these maps con­vey the unfold­ing of worse-to-wors­er sce­nar­ios in a num­ber of visu­al reg­is­ters: tem­po­ral, sym­bol­ic, geo­graph­ic, the­mat­ic, etc.

At the top, the nest­ed tri­an­gles depict the rise of the Antichrist between the years 1570 and 1600. The cen­tral con­cern for this author was the sup­posed glob­al threat of Islam. Thus, the next map, its “T” shape a com­mon Medieval world map device, shows the world before the Apoc­a­lypse, the text around it explain­ing that “Islam is on the rise from 639 to 1514.”

Then, we have a cir­cu­lar map with five swords point­ing at the edges of the known world, illus­trat­ing the author’s con­tention that Islam­ic armies would reach the edges of the earth. The oth­er maps depict the “four horns of the Antichrist,” above, Judge­ment Day, below, (the black eye at the bot­tom is the “black abyss that leads to hell”), and, fur­ther down, a dia­gram describ­ing “the rel­a­tive diam­e­ters of Earth and Hell.”

Made in Lübeck, Ger­many some­time between 1486 and 1488, the man­u­script is writ­ten in Latin, “but it’s not as schol­ar­ly as oth­er con­tem­po­rary man­u­scripts,” write Mason and Miller, “and the pen­man­ship is fair­ly poor.” His­to­ri­an of car­tog­ra­phy Chet Van Duzer explains that “it’s aimed at the cul­tur­al elite, but not the pin­na­cle of the cul­tur­al elite.”

Point­ing out the obvi­ous, Van Duzer says, “there’s no way to escape it, this work is very anti-Islam­ic,” a wide­spread sen­ti­ment in medieval Europe, when the “clash of civ­i­liza­tions” nar­ra­tive spread its roots deep in cer­tain strains of West­ern think­ing. This par­tic­u­lar text also “includes a sec­tion on astro­log­i­cal med­i­cine and a trea­tise on geog­ra­phy that’s remark­ably ahead of its time.”

Van Duzer and Ilya Dines have stud­ied the rare man­u­script for its insight­ful pas­sages on geog­ra­phy and car­tog­ra­phy and pub­lished their research in a book titled Apoc­a­lyp­tic Car­tog­ra­phy. For all its the­o­log­i­cal alarmism, the man­u­script is sur­pris­ing­ly thought­ful when it comes to ana­lyz­ing its own for­mal prop­er­ties and per­spec­tives.

Mason and Miller note that “the author out­lines an essen­tial­ly mod­ern under­stand­ing of the­mat­ic maps as a means to illus­trate char­ac­ter­is­tics of the peo­ple or polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion of dif­fer­ent regions.” As Van Duzer puts it, “this is one of the most amaz­ing pas­sages, to have some­one from the 15th cen­tu­ry telling you their ideas about what maps can do.” This marks the work, he claims in the intro­duc­tion to Apoc­a­lyp­tic Car­tog­ra­phy, as that “of one of the most orig­i­nal car­tog­ra­phers of the peri­od.”

The Apoc­a­lypse Map now resides at the Hunt­ing­ton Library in Los Ange­les.

via Nat Geo

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ancient Maps that Changed the World: See World Maps from Ancient Greece, Baby­lon, Rome, and the Islam­ic World

In 1704, Isaac New­ton Pre­dicts the World Will End in 2060

Down­load 67,000 His­toric Maps (in High Res­o­lu­tion) from the Won­der­ful David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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  • Luke says:

    This arti­cle con­tains some odd assump­tions. It was not com­plete­ly fool­ish for Chris­ten­dom to fear the Islam­ic world at that time (and vice ver­sa, no doubt). Both faiths were mil­i­tant and liable to over­run the ter­ri­to­ries of the oth­er. Islam had a long his­to­ry of sub­sum­ing huge areas of Chris­t­ian Asia and Europe under the sword. To sug­gest that the threat from Islam was imag­i­nary and com­pa­ra­ble to the overblown Islamist fears of the con­tem­po­rary world is rather sil­ly. In fact the great­est Islam­ic incur­sions into the heart of Europe were still to come. Forc­ing the past to con­form to the nar­ra­tive of the present is fraught with dan­ger.

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