Around AD 1000, the
troops of Emperor Otto were surprised by an eclipse of the sun. These
fearless warriors were terrified and thought that Armageddon — the end of
the world — had come; they climbed into barrels and hid under carts.
Calculations and prophesies setting a date for the end of the world has
long been a fixation: Christopher Columbus predicted it would happen in 1647, and the French
astrologer Nostradamus (1503—1566) spoke of a "King of Terrors" who would come down from heaven in the year 1999. Just as no man
knows the hour of his death, so too is the end of the world a mystery:
''The Lord of that servant shall come in a day, when he looketh not for
him, and in an hour that he is not aware of ... ", according to the Gospel
of Matthew (24: 50).
Though precisely when the last hour will be is
not clear in the Bible, how it will happen is vividly described. St
John the Divine writes in the book of Revelation that, at the end of time,
God will come into the world and pronounce judgement upon mankind. His
throne will be flanked by the Four Beasts of the Apocalypse: man, lion,
bull and eagle. These beings are also interpreted as symbols of the
earthly Creation, which is traditionally signified by the number four;
hence the four elements, the four seasons and the four corners of the
earth. The New Testament, which tells of the "new covenant" between God
and man, opens with the gospels of the four Evangelists that form the
majority of this work. Each Evangelist is represented by one of the Four
Beasts of the Apocalypse: Matthew by the man, Mark by the lion, Luke by
the bull and John by the eagle.
In reference to this evangelistic and apocalyptic
imagery, these four beings appear in the Book of Kells. An
illuminated manuscript from the eighth or ninth century, this work
contains the four Gospels together with magnificently painted
illustrations and intricate embellishments with a mix of geometric and zoomorphic
forms. The Book of Kells represents the climax of Irish manuscript
illumination, an art influenced by the work of both the Celts and the
Germanic peoples. A priceless legacy of the early Middle Ages, it is
considered a supreme achievement of Western civilisation. It was probably
created from around 800, but where it was made still remains a mystery:
probably from a monastery library at Kells (sixty-five kilometres
northwest of Dublin), in Northumbria, or perhaps even in eastern Scotland.
This book is perceived as a "sacred relic of art", and so exquisite that
it was once believed to be the work of angels. The first mention of the
Book of Kells was in 1007, when it is recorded stolen — "impiously by
night" — but, after "twenty nights and two months", it miraculously
reappeared having been hidden underneath a small piece of turf.