Last Things and End of Days

For most of us, tomorrow – 21 December 2012 – will pass like any other Friday before Christmas; finishing work for the holidays, having a few drinks with friends, doing last minute shopping, or wrapping presents, will be the most eventful things we do. Yet some of Earth’s citizens will wait with bated breath to see if predictions associated with the 2012 Phenomenon come true.

Over the last few decades, the idea that the world will end or transform on this day has been advanced by numerous films, documentaries, books, news reports, advertising companies, and internet media. Whatever our individual response to the ‘end of days’ hype, the prophecies about 21 December reflect mankind’s long-standing fascination with Last Things, Apocalypse and Doomsday.

In the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed that 15 signs would herald Christ’s Second Coming and warn of the impending ‘domesday’*, when all men would be judged and sent to heaven or hell. The signs generally include (with some variation): 1) The sea rising; 2) The sea receding; 3) The sea returning to normal; 4) Sea monsters rising up and making hideous noise; 5) All water burning; 6) Trees and plants sweating blood; 7) Earthquakes toppling buildings; 8) Rocks and stones clashing together; 9) Hills and mountains turning to powder; 10) Men leaving their hiding places in fear and silence; 11) The bones of dead men rising; 12) Stars falling to earth from heaven; 13) Death coming for the living; 14) Heaven and Earth burning; 15) Heaven and Earth being made new and the dead rising to be judged.

Linked with St John’s Revelations, and spuriously attributed to Saint Jerome, these portents  appear in texts, such as the Pricke of Conscience, Cursor Mundi, and Legenda Aurea, in the Chester cycle of mystery plays, in sermons like John Mirk’s Festial, and as images in illuminated Books of Hours and Apocalypses. It is possible that many of England’s churches were once adorned with representations of the portents in paintings, carvings and stained glass, but only two examples survive today: a window in All Saints’ Church, North Street, York, and an alabaster altarpiece now in the British Museum.

All Saints Monsters2

Fourth sign of Doomsday: Monsters rise from the oceans and make hideous noise

All Saints Earthquake

Seventh sign of Doomsday: earthquakes. All Saint’s Church tumbles down

All Saints Donors2

The terrified donors of the window watch the end of days at the bottom of the window.

All Saints Death

Death arrives to take ‘childe, man and woman’

The signs were designed to encourage sinners to reflect upon the state of their soul and be mindful that the last days would be ‘cruell’, ‘ferdfull and horrybull’ (Mirk, Advent Sunday Sermon). They frequently accompany descriptions or images of Judgement Day itself, which in Christian iconography is easily recognisable. Christ is often seated on a rainbow (a nod to the rainbow sent to Noah after the deluge), displaying his freshly bleeding wounds, and accompanied by saints and angels, who hold the tools of the crucifixion (the cross, nails, crown of thorns, spear etc.) and trumpet to announce the Judgement. The dead are shown rising from their graves, and heaven and hell appear, with attendant angels and demons.

Judgement Day in British Library MS Yates Thompson 3, f. 32v

Judgement Day in British Library MS Yates Thompson 3, f. 32v

The basis of all judgement scenes is the description of Doomsday found in Matthew 25: 31-46. This account describes what is popularly known as the separation of the sheep and the goats, representative of good and bad souls; the (good) sheep are placed on the right of Christ, or the left of the image being viewed, and the (bad) goats are placed on his left, the right of the image.

Hans Memling's Last Judgement, 1467-71

Hans Memling’s Last Judgement, 1467-71

So, if you notice the earth trembling, sea monsters making a lot of noise, or a red dew on your plants tomorrow, make sure that you’re standing on the right of the man on the rainbow and prepare for doomsday medieval-style.

* ‘dome’ means ‘judgement’ in Middle English