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These 15th-Century Maps Show How the Apocalypse Will Go Down

In 15th-century Europe, the Apocalypse weighed heavily on the minds of the people. Plagues were rampant. The once-great capital of the Roman empire, Constantinople, had fallen to the Turks. Surely, the end was nigh.

Dozens of printed works described the coming reckoning in gory detail, but one long-forgotten manuscript depicts the Apocalypse in a very different way—through maps. “It has this sequence of maps that illustrate each stage of what will happen,” says Chet Van Duzer, a historian of cartography who has written a book about the previously unstudied manuscript.

The geography is sketchy by modern standards, but the maps make one thing perfectly clear: If you’re a sinner, you’ve got nowhere to hide. The Antichrist is coming, and his four horns will reach the corners of the earth. And it just gets worse from there.

The manuscript is also the first known collection of thematic maps, or maps that depict something that’s not a physical feature of the environment (like rivers, roads, and cities). Thematic maps are ubiquitous today—from rainbow-colored weather maps to the red-and-blue maps of election results—but most historians date their origins to the 17th century. The apocalypse manuscript, which now belongs to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, was written two centuries earlier, Van Duzer writes in his recently published book, Apocalyptic Cartography.

According to the manuscript, the four horns of the Antichrist will extend to the ends of the earth between 1600 and 1606. The horns represent the ways he will persuade people to follow him: deceit, cunning, cruelty, and imitation of the Deity.
According to the manuscript, the four horns of the Antichrist will extend to the ends of the earth between 1600 and 1606. The horns represent the ways he will persuade people to follow him: deceit, cunning, cruelty, and imitation of the Deity.
The Huntington Library

The manuscript was made in Lübeck, Germany, between 1486 and 1488. It’s written in Latin, so it wasn’t meant for the masses. But it’s not as scholarly as other contemporary manuscripts, and the penmanship is fairly poor, Van Duzer says. “It’s aimed at the cultural elite, but not the pinnacle of the cultural elite.”

The author is unknown. Van Duzer suspects it may have been a well-traveled doctor named Baptista. If so, he was in some ways very much a product of his time, yet in other ways centuries ahead of it.

The cartographic account of the Apocalypse begins with a map that shows the condition of the world between 639 and 1514. The earth is a circle, and Asia, Africa, and Europe are depicted as pie wedges surrounded by water. The text describes the rise of Islam, which the author sees as a growing threat to the Christian world. “There’s no way to escape it, this work is very anti-Islamic,” Van Duzer says. “It’s unfortunate,” he adds, but it was a widespread bias in that place and time.

Subsequent maps, which you can see in the gallery above, depict the “Sword of Islam” conquering Europe, followed by the rise of the Antichrist, a massive triangle that extends from pole to pole. Another map depicts the gates of Hell opening up on Judgment Day, which the author predicts will occur in 1651. A small, featureless globe depicts the world after that.

Unlike the Huntington manuscript, many works published around the same time, such as this hand-colored German book published in 1570, used pictures to depict the impending horrors of the Apocalypse. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
Unlike the Huntington manuscript, many works published around the same time, such as this hand-colored German book published in 1470, used pictures to depict the impending horrors of the Apocalypse. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
Library of Congress

All the maps in the manuscript are symbolic, but the post-apocalyptic map takes minimalism to the max. “There’s nothing on it, but it’s very clearly labeled as a map,” Van Duzer says. “It raises the question of what is a map, and it explores that boundary.”

The text is filled with idiosyncratic details. The author calculated the distance to Paradise: 777 German miles from Lübeck to Jerusalem, and thence another 1000 miles to the eastern end of the Earth (a German mile is an obsolete measurement with many variations, making it difficult to pin down the modern equivalent). He also calculated the circumferences of Earth and Hell (8,000 and 6,100 German miles, respectively, though his use of different numbers for pi suggests a shaky grasp of geometry).

In addition to the apocalyptic section, the manuscript includes a section on astrological medicine and a treatise on geography that’s remarkably ahead of its time. For example, the author writes about the need to adjust the size of text to prevent distortions on maps and make them easier to read, an issue cartographers still wrestle with today. (At the same time, he also chastises mapmakers for placing monsters on maps in places where they didn’t exist, an issue cartographers rarely wrestle with today.)

The geographical treatise ends with a short discussion of the purpose and function of world maps. It’s here, Van Duzer says, 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.

“For me this is one of the most amazing passages, to have someone from the 15th century telling you their ideas about what maps can do.”

—Greg Miller


 

Watch: Map of Hell

National Geographic Channel

Airing Sunday May 15 at 9 Eastern/Central

Seventy percent of Americans believe hell is a real place. Actor Danny Trejo has played plenty of bad guys in his time, so he’s on a mission to map out where the idea of hell came from. It’s a terrifying journey through 3,000 years of the afterlife. From ancient Greece to the birth of Christianity, to medieval Europe and modern America, visit real locations believed to be portals to the underworld and witness a hair-raising vision of hell come to life.
 

26 thoughts on “These 15th-Century Maps Show How the Apocalypse Will Go Down

  1. I don’t mind the apocalypse happening but I don’t want it to im very happy with life now WE the people might end up destroying ourselves before the sun dies

  2. Interesting article.

    Although I do find this section a bit odd:
    The text describes the rise of Islam, which the author sees as a growing threat to the Christian world. “There’s no way to escape it, this work is very anti-Islamic,” Van Duzer says. “It’s unfortunate,” he adds, but it was a widespread bias in that place and time.

    I’m not sure why it is considered as “unfortunate” and biased, since the fact is that Europe was defending itself from Islamic invasion for centuries. We should not judge the past by our modern day political correctness.

    1. You seem ignorant of the Crusades and the invasion of Islamic territories, when Christians murdered thousands of folk in the middle east to save their souls.

      1. You are apparently ignorant of the 450 years of Islamic assaults on Christendom prior to the Crusades when first the Holy Land, Asia Minor, North Africa, and Spain were conquered (taken by force with much killing, beheading, burning, etc.) by Muslims, followed by Sicily, southern Italy, Bulgaria, and just before the Crusades began, the near-takeover of Constantinople by Seljuk Muslim Turks. The Crusades were but a short counterattack to centuries of Islamic jihad, which continued after the Crusades to the gates of Vienna. Please read more about the times and what happened. There were plenty of overreaching Crusaders, but murdering innocent people was not the reason for the Crusades.

      2. I am well aware of the crusades, as well as the centuries of Islamic invasions in which they conquered vast amounts of territory violently, including all of the Middle East, North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, and began moving into Eastern Europe. The crusades were an attempt to reclaim some of the territory lost during those centuries. Therefore, I don’t see Europeans being anti-Islamic as being “biased;” rather quite natural for people to not be fond of those who are trying to invade their nations.

        1. I tend to see that time as a continuation of the invasions of the Roman Empire by various outside groups. Some of them adopted one form or another of Xtianity, like the Slavs in the Balkans or the Gothic peoples in Spain or North Africa, or Islam like the Mongols/Tartars. The Byzantines, having asked the West for money to hire troops loyal to them, not free lancing soldiers loyal only to themselves, spent quite a bit of time fighting the Crusaders as well who carved out kingdoms for themselves from former Byzantine land. The same as they had done is the west in Normandy, Sicily and England.

      3. I agree with Patrick as to who really seems ignorant here. The Crusades were a reaction against past and continuing invasion of Christian lands by Muslim invaders. The Holy Lands the Crusaders sought to liberate had been invaded 450 years earlier by Muslim armies and those invasions were continuing to encroach on Spain and Constantinople. Please learn a little about history instead of swallowing a biased claim that is so easily refuted.

    2. J.E. and Patrick, I agree… a very odd thing for the author(s) to say. Completely out of context and the times. Amazing how even scholars can fudge an otherwise great story by somehow feeling the need to apologize for History and confuse today’s political correctness with the realities of Medieval times.

    3. This article has been in the back of my mind since I read it last week, and not for the right reasons. I’m specifically irked by the following: ‘The text describes the rise of Islam, which the author sees as a growing threat to the Christian world. “There’s no way to escape it, this work is very anti-Islamic,” Van Duzer says. “It’s unfortunate,” he adds, but it was a widespread bias in that place and time.”’

      Historians should aim to leave their personal political biases out of their work. As others have accurately pointed out, words such as “anti-Islamic”, “unfortunate”, and “bias” are modern, (some would say politically left-wing) assessments which really have no place here given the time in which the original text was written. A rudimentary study of the history of the Early Modern era can show that the threat from Islam was felt throughout Christendom and many battles were fought between Christian armies and the invading Muslims. The further invasion of Europe by the Ottomans (Muslims) were thwarted at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Early Modern Europeans wouldn’t have understood our contemporary cultural self-flagellation.

      1. Not surprising for National Geographic, which increasingly over the years, since my childhood, has like so many entities that claim to be scientifically objective, are anything but. I still enjoy this great publication, but have to thresh the chaff from the wheat in the age of cultural Marxism.

        1. National Geographic has been a “TRASH RAG” for more than thirty years. The majority of the crap that they publish is government-funded leftist propaganda, which includes evolution, climate change, biased religious articles, left-wing biased political and historical propaganda, etc. The majority of people are suckered by the pretty pictures. I have yet to see them publish a rebuttal for an article that was proven to be a lie.

    4. The author must be ignorant of European history at the time the maps were made: Constantinople had fallen to Islam in 1453 — Gutenberg’s movable type just produced — and the “Islamic hordes” were marching into Eastern Europe, killing, inflicting conversion or tribute on the Christians, and taking their pubescent boys, castrating them, and training them to run the bureaucracy of the Ottoman Empire. Vienna, in the heart of Europe, was besieged in 1529 and 1683.
      National Geographic should not allow, condone, or encourage such ignorance.
      And National Geographic won’t post this.

    5. You missed the point of his observation, it was not the rise of Islam was unfortunate, his point was that the prejudice against Islam was an unfortunate, unavoidable fact of the map and its writer.

  3. Interesting in that the book author says “this work is very anti-Islamic” and that it is “unfortunate”. This completely misses the historical aspect of it. At the time this was created, the Ottoman Empire was invading Eastern Europe and moving towards (current day) Germany. It would be unusual that the map wasn’t “anti-Islamic” as the Ottomans were slowly conquering Europe. So equating the Apocalypse with the current invasion would be a natural reaction. I wouldn’t be surprised if people equated the Hun invasion of Europe with the Apocalypse.

  4. Leaving out the debate on the “brutality” of Islam conquering Europe, and the blood thirsty crusaders response, and the culmination of all this into the colonialism of the 19th & 20th centuries, which I “assume” started out by colonial European powers wishing to defend themselves against Islam, and other foreign cultures too, the main crux of the article regarding the maps appears to be missed. Which is they were totally wrong, off course, and bear no substance to the awaited apocalypse. Why is it then that the maps are considered of historical importance or scientific relevance ?

  5. I find the use of geometry very interesting – Geometry is of the few if not the only tangible truth that everybody in the world can measure. Geometry gave rise to Gothic architecture which would have been at its height in the 15th C, and, in the Islamic world it was reaching new sublime heights in it calligraphic representation. What is the author riling against particularly. Perhaps it’s an esoteric document.

  6. Sadly the reader and the author(s) have failed to recognise that both the math and maps stem from a much older era, and were copied
    In the 15th century .

  7. Do people think history would have been much different if the Arabs had come up with a religion that was recognizable as a version of Christianity? Or would things have been pretty much the same, except with the Ottomans and Mongols adopting this other version of Christianity, but being just as aggressive? The Orthodox Byzantines spent a lot of energy fighting off the Catholic crusaders as well as the various Muslim groups.

  8. Why do people in this day and age still believe in fairy stories about religion? Eastern based religions are just the original scam trying to control the population. It was excusable for people to believe back in the dark ages when the “church” had destroyed all literature to protect their money grabbing businesses. The Roman empire was a very advanced civilisation until their emperor was “converted” and all the principalities started spending money on building the biggest, most ornate churches. Money ceased for highly advanced engineering for Roman infrastructure and the rest is history, the empire collapsed. We even still have “believers” like the science teacher from Queensland Australia who believes genesis is the truth and the world is only 6,000years old. How does he explain a globe shaped earth. It was considered flat in those days. He is building a christian theme park to con money out of other gullible believers. How would a science teacher earn that amount of money? Why doesn’t someone challenge him to load two of every species into his “ark” and prove the flood story is true?

  9. I find the original text fascinating, but I am a liberal and am just as disconcerted as anyone by the odd liberal biases voiced by the author and evidenced in National Geographic in general. A publication ostensibly dedicated to science reporting should avoid any overt political perspective. As already well stated, the history of the times would seem to justify a certain degree of apprehension on the part of Christians towards Muslims. /s

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