The Oldest Images of the Apocalypse: A Cycle of Mural Paintings from the Dionysiou Monastery

According to the ancient legend, the ship carrying the Most Holy Theotokos and St John the Apostle encountered a storm and was washed ashore in 49AD at the foot of a most beautiful mountain. Delighted with the beauty of that place, the Theotokos asked God to make it Her abode. The Lord answered, “Let this place become your domain, both a garden and heaven on earth, and also a refuge for those who yearn for salvation.” This is the story of the holy Mount Athos, remaining for many years the center of all Orthodox monasticism. 

The first monasteries on Athos began to emerge as early as the 10th century. Agia Lavra, the oldest of its monasteries, was founded in 963, while the history of the youngest (Stavronikita) originates in 1542. At the moment, there are 20 Orthodox monasteries in Athos, serving under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. They have preserved many ancient manuscripts, icons and great Christian relics, including mural paintings.

Some exceptionally interesting murals can be seen in the Dionysiou Monastery of St John the Baptist, the fifth in the hierarchical order on Mount Athos. The Monastery was founded in the 14th century by St Dionysios of Koreseos. Since 1535, by God’s special intercession, it has become a testimony to a real miracle, not suffering in any way from the fires, common in the Athonite monasteries.

The Monastery houses a cycle of mural paintings that are the world’s oldest full depictions of the events described in the book of the Apocalypse. It is worth mentioning that in ancient times the scenes of the Apocalypse were commonly depicted on western walls of churches, so that a person exiting the church would retain the fear of God in his heart. Another symbolic meaning of depicting images of the Apocalypse in the west was the ultimate victory over evil. 

In contrast to the common tradition, the Dionysiou murals of the Apocalypse are located in the refectory. The Dionysiou Monastery, known for its strictest rules, has become a model for many Athonite communities. Apparently, the scenes of the Apocalypse in the refectory were meant to help the monastics maintain a pious mood, remembering death every minute of their lives, even while eating. 

These mural paintings date back to about 1560-1564, and represent 21 scenes from the book of the Apocalypse, that is, one for each chapter, except the 22nd. The absence of a scene illustrating the last chapter can be explained by the fact that it “duplicates” the 21st chapter in that it also describes New Jerusalem. The scenes are in chronological order, creating a circular composition along the perimeter of the refectory.

The cycle starts with the 12 scenes to the right (west) of the main entrance, and the remaining 9 scenes are located to the left of the entrance, on the east side. Notably, almost all of the scenes were eventually rewritten.  It should also be noted that the people depicted in the cycle often lack eyes. The frescos were “blinded” by the Ottomans, who felt as if the images were “alive”, and they were being watched by them. 

The “Apocalypse” series of engravings by the German artist Albrecht Dürer had a significant influence on the Dionysiou murals. This is evidenced by the compositional similarities in depicting the vision of seven lamps, the heavenly liturgy, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, the lifting of the fifth, sixth and seventh seals,St John eating the scroll and several other individual details.

A prominent feature of the Dionysiou mural paintings is their clarity. While the book of the Apocalypse abounds with allegories and images requiring additional explanation, the author of the murals makes the images as clear and easy to read as possible. This effect is amplified by the inscriptions with corresponding passages from Revelation complementing each image. 

That being said, the murals do not deprive the biblical story of its imagery. On the contrary, the artist skilfully expands the field for interpreting the events of the Revelation, without imposing his perception of its allegorical scenes on the beholder.  Due to this, the Dionysiou murals have originated many legends and original interpretations. For example, in the depiction of the final blows that will befall on humanity, some see a nuclear explosion (8), bombings and bomb shelters (5), tanks (9), flamethrowers (ibid.) and other modern realities. 

The artist sometimes goes very far in interpreting the scenes of the Apocalypse in the spirit of his time, which, on the other hand, can hardly be avoided entirely. Despite the multiple attempts to interpret the Book of the Apocalypse, it still has no generally accepted interpretation, due to its complexity and rich imagery. 

Given its prophetic nature, the most common interpretation is that the book describes the events of the future. One way or another, the exact time and manner of realization the apocalyptic prophecies cannot be determined. Some associate the Apocalypse (and consequently the Dionysiou murals) with modern political events or give similar examples from the past. 

It is important, however, that we shift our focus away from delving into legends and second-guessing meanings, remembering the central event described in the book of the Apocalypse, the appearance of Christ accompanied by heavenly forces, that is, the Second Coming, and the final Resurrection, which will be followed by the complete union of believers with Christ. Let us believe only in what is established by the teaching of the Church, which it is our duty to keep unchanged.

1. Vision of seven candlesticks (Rev. 1:9-20). Inscription:  I, John, was in the Spirit, and when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. (Rev. 1:9-13) 

2. 24 elders and the Throne in Heaven (4:1-5:14). Inscription: And there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne. (4:2-3)

3. Four Horsemen (6:1-8). Inscription:  I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest (6:2).

4. Souls receiving white robes (6:9-11). Inscription: I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained (6:9).

5. Sixth seal (6:12-17). Inscription: I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth (6:12-13).

6. Adoration of 144 000 (7:1-8). Inscription: Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God (7:2).

7. 7 trumpets (8:1-13). And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. And there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake (8:2-5).

8. Fifth trumpet (9:1-12). Inscription: The fifth angel sounded his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from the sky to the earth. The star was given the key to the shaft of the Abyss. When he opened the Abyss, smoke rose from it like the smoke from a gigantic furnace. The sun and sky were darkened by the smoke from the Abyss. And out of the smoke locusts came down on the earth and were given power like that of scorpions of the earth. (9:1-3)

9. Sixth trumpet (9:13-12). Inscription: The sixth angel sounded his trumpet, and I heard a voice coming from the four horns of the golden altar that is before God. It said to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.” And the four angels who had been kept ready for this very hour and day and month and year were released to kill a third of mankind. (9:13-15)

10. John eats the book (10:1-11). Inscription: Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven. He was robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were like fiery pillars.  (10:1) Inscription on the book: Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but ‘in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey (10:9).

11. Two witnesses (11:1-3). Inscription: I was given a reed like a measuring rod and was told, “Go and measure the temple of God”. And I will appoint my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days (11:1,3).

12. Woman and dragon (12:1-13). Inscription: A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head (12:1).

13. Adoration of the beast (13:1-12). Inscription:  And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns. Then I saw a second beast, coming out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb. And it  made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast (13:1, 11-12).

14. Adoration at Zion (14:1-13). Inscription:  Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 (14:1).

15. Harvest of the world (14:14-20). Inscription: I looked, and there before me was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like a son of man with a crown of gold on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand (14:14).

16. Seven bowls (15:1-16,21). Inscription: I saw in heaven another great and marvelous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues—last, because with them God’s wrath is completed (15:1).

17. Whore of Babylon (17:1-18). Inscription: I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns (17:1,3).

18. Fall of Babylon (18:1-24). Inscription: After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven. He had great authority, and the earth was illuminated by his splendor. With a mighty voice he shouted: “‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great! She has become a dwelling for demons. The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore (18:1-2,11)

19. Christ on the white horse (19:11-21). Inscription: And there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. And on his head are many crowns. And his name is the Word of God (19:11,13).

20. Satan in chains (20:1-3). Inscription: And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years (20:1-2).

21. New Jerusalem (21:1-27). Inscription: And I, John, saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband (21:2).

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