Guest post by Sophie Sterling, an M.Litt Art History student on placement in Special Collections researching Reformation-era illustrations in our early printed books
Fear is exciting, the grim is fascinating. Nothing’s more fun than a cataclysmic bloodbath of Biblical proportions, and the Apocalypse of John delivers on all counts. The sea burns and becomes blood, all plant life dies, and a dreadful time is to be had for all.
The threat of the end of days had loomed over the heads of all men from the early Middle ages onwards, and the Papists and Reformists of the sixteenth century were no different; it is no exaggeration to say many expected the known world would end within their lifetimes. The sensationalized, much anticipated, dreaded and oft discussed apocalypse was known to be kicked off by the appearance of one individual, and all that was despised and wicked would be given shape in the form of the individual known as Antichrist. Jesus’ antithesis, born from the union of a demon and prostitute, could rise to infamy at any moment, it having been prophesied his early years would be spent in anonymity, like those of Christ. Some believed the Antichrist was already active in Europe, citing hated rulers, secular and religious, as hypocritical false prophets of such depravity they could only be Antichrist himself.
The pinnacle of sin in human form was a popular subject in the high and low arts, appearing on handbills and in illustrated Bibles in a variety of forms, dependent on the views of those who published the material.
The fiercely anti-papal Reformers adopted as a symbol of Church corruption the creature known as the Papal Antichrist. Sometimes a dragon, sometimes a man, but always grotesque, this fellow was the embodiment of bad news, adorned in the trappings of His Holiness. Representing the Church at large rather than any specific individual, the Papal Antichrist is always identifiable by his crown, the tiered Papal tiara.
The Antichrist as a dragon donning a tiara was very popular in Lutheran versions of the Bible, including Luther’s own translation of the New Testament with illustrations by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The 1553 edition of this text features a comically malformed Pope-beast with enormous ears, tongue a-lolling like a gigantic dog. Set within a cavernous church, this image draws upon the conception of the Antichrist as the “the parodic opposite of Christ in all things.”1 Despite the grand surroundings, the Antichrist can only look like a misshapen fool. A creature both silly and sinister, it has many equally ridiculous siblings in the countless anti-Papal prints that equate the Pope with the Beast.
Even in human form, the Papal Antichrist was made over into a grotesque caricature. Lucas Cranach the Elder, designer of the above print, produced a series of woodcuts, Passionary of Christ and Antichrist, that contrasted the ways of the true Messiah with the false. Cranach’s Pope, the picture of vainglory, sits beneath a cloth of honor and demands obsequience from a succession of monarchs and notables. Unpleasant of feature and temperament, he sets himself above his fellow man, whereas the mild, unpretentious Christ kneels to wash his followers’ feet.
The contrast between the two could not be more marked. People were encouraged to live their lives in an imitation of Christ’s own, starting with the publication of the anonymous (and immensely popular) Imitatio Christi, which “admonishes man to be concerned with the spiritual side of life rather than with the materialistic”2 and concern themselves with the well-being of others before themselves. In the Third Book of the Imitatio, the author implores his audience “[Let] me love thee much more than my self; nay, love my self and all good Men;”3 the Papal Antichrist does not even superficially attempt this in Cranach’s print.
The Antichrist as depicted by the Catholics was equally dastardly in deeds, but visual depictions of him are, narratively speaking, much duller at first glance. The Venetian exorcist Alessio Porri devoted an entire volume to the discussion of the False Prophet, peppered with illustrations of the fiend’s various misdeeds and the reaction thereto of the holy and devout. Although capable of wielding great and sinister powers, the Antichrist of these images is merely a man, albeit one with a distinctly forked beard and a somewhat unpleasant expression. There is little to distinguish him from his peers, and unlike his brethren in the Lutheran Bibles, he does not cavort and menace. Ultimately, he doesn’t need to. Skillfully rendered and handled with greater sobriety, the Antichrist produced by Porri’s illustrator is all the more frightening for his anonymity, engendering an anxiety that creeps rather than dashes, unmitigated by the humor of caricature.
The arts of the past are inseparable from the circumstances they were created under, least of all the explicitly political prints of Reformation-era Europe. Amongst the dialogue of point and counterpoint, specific differences in depiction of the ultimate evil were born, creating two distinct Antichrist-types, each with their own iconography and aim. The Antichrist of the Protestants is a galumphing wall eyed beast in a crown when it is not an ill-favored, be-jowled man; in both cases, the False Prophet is explicitly identified as the head of the Papacy. The mainstream church, for their part, did not fire back with caricature and satire, but their quietly malevolent Antichrist has his own brand of evil, no less effective. Both are very much products of their time, and a concession to the very real fear of the apocalypse lurking in the hearts of all Christians, prone to protest or not.
1 Britannica Academic, s.v. “Antichrist,” accessed February 6, 2017, http://academic.eb.com.ezproxy.lib.gla.ac.uk/levels/collegiate/article/7814.
2 Britannica Academic, s.v. “Imitation of Christ,,” accessed February 6, 2017, http://academic.eb.com.ezproxy.lib.gla.ac.uk/levels/collegiate/article/42187
3 George Stanhope ( 1660-1728),trans., The Christian’s Pattern: Or, A Treatise of the Imitation of Jesus Christ. Written Originally In Latin by Thomas à Tempis. Now Render’d Into English. To Which Are Added Meditations And Prayers for Sick Persons, by George Stanhope, 12th ed. (London: Printed by J. Ilive for J.J. and P. Knapton, 1733).
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