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from issue no. 03 - 2011

Archive of 30Giorni


The apocalyptic cycle featured in the crypt frescoes of the Cathedral of Anagni south of Rome represents both Christ’s victory which has come to pass and his ongoing war against war itself, hell and death

by Lorenzo Cappelletti


Then, in my vision, I saw the Lamb break one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures shout in a voice like thunder, ‘Come!’. Immediately I saw a white horse appear, and its rider was holding a bow; he was given a victor’s crown and he went away, to go from victory to victory.

When he broke the second seal, I heard the second living creature shout, ‘Come!’. And out came another horse, bright red, and its rider was given this duty: to take away peace from the earth and set people killing each other. He was given a huge sword.
When he broke the third seal, I heard the third living creature shout, ‘Come!’. Immediately I saw a black horse appear, and its rider was holding a pair of scales; and I seemed to hear a voice shout from among the four living creatures and say, ‘A day’s wages for a quart of corn, and a day’s wages for three quarts of barley, but do not tamper with the oil or the wine’.
When he broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature shout, ‘Come!’. Immediately I saw another horse appear, deathly pale, and its rider was called Death, and Hades followed at its heels. They were given authority over a quarter of the earth, to kill by the sword, by famine, by plague and through wild beasts.
When he broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of all the people who had been killed on account of the Word of God, for witnessing to it. They shouted in a loud voice,
‘Holy, true Master, how much longer
will you wait before you pass sentence
and take vengeance for our death
on the inhabitants of the earth?’.
Each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to be patient a little longer, until the roll was completed of their fellow-servants and brothers who were still to be killed as they had been.
In my vision, when he broke the sixth seal, there was a violent earthquake and the sun went as black as coarse sackcloth; the moon turned red as blood all over, and the stars of the sky fell onto the earth like figs dropping from a fig tree when a high wind shakes it; the sky disappeared like a scroll rolling up and all the mountains and islands were shaken from their places. Then all the kings of the earth, the governors and the commanders, the rich people and the men of influence, the whole population, slaves and citizens, hid in caverns and among the rocks of the moun­t­ains. They said to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us away from the One who sits on the throne and from the retribution of the Lamb. For the Great Day of his retribution has come, and who can face it?’.
Next I saw four angels, standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the world to keep them from blowing over the land or the sea or any tree. Then I saw another angel rising where the sun rises, carrying the seal of the living God; he called in a powerful voice to the four angels whose duty was to devastate land and sea, ‘Wait before you do any damage on land or at sea or to the trees, until we have put the seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God’.
The bowl of the principal apse with the Lamb of Revelation in the center surrounded by the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders [© Paolo Galosi]

The bowl of the principal apse with the Lamb of Revelation in the center surrounded by the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders [© Paolo Galosi]

Apocalyptical or conformist? Although there exists this alternative, which is not an alternative at all, between Utopia and acquiescence, The Revelation to John has always claimed to throw a truer light on the affairs of history, to offer an incommensurable and yet supremely realistic perspective, neither apocalyptical nor conformist. And today, as a war bigger than we are rages, we feel the need of this light more than ever.
The word, “apocalypse”, as anyone with even just a smattering of knowledge of Holy Scripture knows, means revelation, a demonstration, an unveiling. “A revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him so that he could tell his servants what is now to take place very soon”, the first verse of the Prologue tells us and it is repeated almost word for word at the end (The Revelation to John 1, 1 and 22, 6). After his victory Jesus Christ, “the faithful witness, the First-born of the dead, the highest of earthly kings” (The Revelation to John 1, 5), shows the apostle John, who is “in ecstasy”, removed from history, all that is truly coming to pass in it. As the great exegete Heinrich Schlier writes in the opening lines of his famed essay on The Revelation to John published in the collection of articles, Le temps de l’Église (Casterman, 1961): “The Revelation to John is the only New Testament book with history as its theme. It was therefore by meditating upon this book that Christian reflection on history developed”. It was reflection expressed through the centuries not only in words but also in images and colors.
Anagni, in the crypt of the cathedral of this fateful town south of Rome, is home to a series of frescoes begun when Joachim da Flore’s († March 30, 1202) mental elaborations on history were starting to become known. By contrast, Anagni’s magnificent works illustrate a concept of history born of the traditional meditation on The Revelation to John still in vogue then and of which Augustine’s De civitate Dei is paradigmatic. Until the breach formed by Joachim with his tripartition of history in successive ages of the Father, the Son and the Spirit, it was not even conceivable that the historical fact of Christ could ever be surpassed in time by any later age of the Spirit, the bringer of a greater grace. The event of Jesus Christ was conceived as the beginning of the end of the world. According to thinking of the Augustinian and Thomistic stamp, “Christ is not the hinge of history by which a changed and redeemed world has its beginning and by which an unredeemed history which had resisted until that moment is abandoned; Christ is, rather, the beginning of the end of history. He is ‘redemption’ to the degree that, with Him, the ‘end’ begins to shine forth in history. Redemption consists (from a historical perspective) in this phase now begun while history, so to speak, still proceeds ‘per nefas’ for a certain period, leading the ancient age of this world to its end” (Joseph Ratzinger, San Bonaventura. La teologia della storia, page 211 [St Bonaventure. The theolgy of history] ).
Because its intent was to interpret the time of the Church as the ultimate time sub gratia and not to depict what lies beyond that, Anagni’s apocalyptic cycle consists purely in scenes drawn from the first 12 chapters of The Revelation to John and from its three successive septenaries (the seals, the trumpets and the bowls). The series chooses to represent only the seals and stops just as the seventh seal is about to be opened. It chooses, that is, to stop at the proclamation of judgment and is unconcerned about exploring the more vivid aspects of that judgment’s promulgation and execution. (The “political and spiritual instruments full of power and degeneration” [Schlier] that today seem to fit to the letter some of the prophetic visions in Chapters 13-18 of The Revelation to John had probably still to be devised).
Thus, in this pictorial version full of grace, is represented in a supremely composed manner the inexorability of the victory brought by Jesus Christ as well as the elements of a fight which, certainly, is still being fought but which can no longer strike fear. For, in Anagni, the war and death (The Revelation to John 6, 4-8) that force eyes wide open in fear, the stars that change color (The Revelation to John 6, 12) are but two little circles in the quiet breath of an angel. The dragon with the ten horns (The Revelation to John 12, 3) is just a little dragon under the feet of a serene archangel, while all the honor, strength and beauty are reserved for Him who sits on the throne, for the Lamb, for those who share his glory and who are wearing the regal crown of victors, for the 24 elders, for the virgins and the martyrs aligned in almost musical arrangement.
The opening of the first four seals represented on the right of the bowl of the principal apse [© Paolo Galosi]

The opening of the first four seals represented on the right of the bowl of the principal apse [© Paolo Galosi]

Christ, is the manifestation of a force triumphant over the world
At the center of this entire pictorial series, in the heart of the apse bowl and in the midst of the four living creatures and the 24 elders, we find the victor, the Lamb in the act of opening the seven seals that had kept the book closed, book that no one could open until his victory had come to pass. This made John weep and it makes us weep, too, again and again in the presence of the humanly inexplicable mystery of history. But “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed and so he will open the scroll” (The Revelation to John 5, 5), we read, the pages of the book now wide open. Weep no more!
To the right and left of the central apse, on an atypical triumphal arch and on the vaulted ceiling next to it, are the scenes corresponding to the opening of each seal. They start on the right with the representation of the four horsemen who emerge when the first four seals are opened. But they cannot be said to be the four horsemen “of the apocalypse” in that they do not all symbolize the same sovereign forces of destruction, as if the ultimate unveiling coincided with an ultimate destruction, as if the end goal were the end itself. Not so. Unlike the theories that continue to be expounded by a corps of critics too scared to look upon reality for fear of having to forego their preconceptions and so lose their very identities, here, according to the traditional interpretation of Chapters 6, 1-2 and 19, 11-16 of The Revelation to John read in coordination with each other, the struggle begun by the first horseman is against the other three. The first of the four horsemen (he is riding a white horse, wearing a crown and holding a bow according to the letter of The Revelation to John 6, 2) is also covered with a cloak, soaked in his own blood, and he is crowned with many coronets of glory divine, says Revelation 19, 13: he is the Word of God, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords who, as the Vulgate tells us (The Revelation to John 6, 2), exivit vincens ut vinceret, emerged victorious to win what remains to be won. Christ has won. It is Christ who wins still. “From where did he emerge if not from the open seal?”, wrote Ambrosius Autpertus, abbot of the great Carolingian Monastery of San Vincenzo al Volturno, whose crypt houses another beautiful cycle of early-­Medieval frescoes inspired by Autpertus’ comments on The Revelation to John. The white horse does indeed seem to emerge from Anagni’s principal apse bowl, where the Lamb is opening the seals. The horseman is about to loose an arrow in the direction of the second horseman who, fleeing, looks back in terror.
The first horseman’s duty is to trigger an inexorable victory. The horse is stepping. There is no agitation in the stretching of the bow, just firmness of hand, without visible aggressiveness. All the second horseman can do is flee at the gallop. It is not the war that strikes terror; the war itself appears to be terrorized and it has to run, brandishing in its own defence its huge sword in both hands, swinging it around and around above its head. But the huge sword, however daunting, does not defend; it had been given to him to offend, to “take away peace from the earth and set people killing each other” (The Revelation to John 6, 4). How to defend oneself now from an arrow?
In the lower panel of this same scene, death too has the same terrorized look as war. He gallops off on a deathly pale horse followed by the devil, nude and winged, who rides the crest of the dark hell holding a great pair of scales that weighs without pity. Just as war is hunted down and tries to flee the King triumphant, so Death is tracked and seeks to flee hell, a second death. In a verse transcribed under the scene, the designer of these frescoes diligently explains that there are two pairs of horsemen: Has per picturas bis binas disce figuras(see the figures represented in these paintings two by two). But this two-by-two parallel perspective is only partial because hell and death are, in their turn, hunted down by the first horseman and their fate is to end up in the burning lake (The Revelation to John 20, 14).
The force triumphant over the world represented here, a force which, winning again and again, primarily protects peace, is the exact opposite, then, to the usual interpretation of a panorama of destruction and terror that overwhelms all things. (This concept of the apocalypse is said to have been elaborated at the height of the Middle Ages, but probably coincided with the later millennaristic and gnostic-like interpretation devised by Joachim that was to become prevalent).
The theme continues and becomes clearer in the vaulted ceiling over the scene of the four horsemen. Here, four angels set at the four corners of the scene dotted about with flowers, are bringing to the ground four horned and winged figures. This is not the allegorical struggle between good and evil, as the critics have so often suggested in their belief in the ghosts of their own manich­aean preconceptions. Rather, according to The Revelation to John 7, 1, it signifies protection from the winds of devastation, the preservation of the conditions that allow life on this earth. Like peace, nature too is preserved from harm by the King triumphant and full of mercy: Tu, victor Rex, miserere. How far the letter of The Revelation to John is from the hallucinatory machinations some people claim for it, people with ghosts in their heads and hatred in their hearts: “Next I saw four angels, standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the world to keep them from blowing over the land or the sea or any tree. Then I saw another angel rising where the sun rises, carrying the seal of the living God; he called in a powerful voice to the four angels whose duty was to devastate land and sea, ‘Wait before you do any damage on land or at sea or to the trees, until we have put the seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God’ (The Revelation to John 7, 1-2)”. Another angel, who appears to be scaling the lower arch, is pointing to a scroll containing these words. He is holding a cross in the form of a lance from which hang the alpha and the omega.
Is this cross merely the iconographical attribute of the angel? Just a detail? No, that slender cross (which “is the sign of the Trinity that we all receive in baptism”, wrote Saint Bruno, bishop of Segni, in his comments on this verse of Revelation), is the ultimate reason for all that is represented. The aim of the war that the King triumphant is waging against war itself, and the aim, too, of the peremptory order by the angel with the seal (which is just another way of intending “the Risen Christ”, as Beda, Ambrosius Autpertus and so many others tell us), to suspend all destruction, is to allow, through baptism, a sublime descendancy as numerous as the stars according to the promise, to enjoy celestial, incommensurable happiness: promissa posteritas caelesti felicitate sublimis writes Augustine (De civitate Dei 16, 23).
Several times (at least three) the baptismal seal is represented in the Anagni crypt in the form of the monogram of Christ’s name and yet no critic has ever considered this worthy of note. It is almost as if the promise made to Abraham that he would father many peoples, a descendancy as great as the stars in heaven, will be fulfilled in something other than baptism (but, after all, even the promise has never been acknowledged by critics of Anagni’s Vault VIII, thus blocking Christianity’s entire “mechanism”, as Péguy would put it); as Jesus whispered to Nicodemus that night in Jerusalem and as Peter said in a loud voice after the death and resurrection of the Lord: “You must repent, and every one of you must be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receivethe gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise that was made is for you and your children, and for all those who are far away, for all those whom the Lord our God is calling to himself” (Acts 2, 38ff).
The scene of the opening of the fifth seal: Jesus Christ gives the stole of glory to the souls of the martyrs [© Paolo Galosi]

The scene of the opening of the fifth seal: Jesus Christ gives the stole of glory to the souls of the martyrs [© Paolo Galosi]

A short time
In the symmetrical lay-out of this series of scenes, the opening of the fifth and sixth seals is represented on the other part of the triumphal arch framing the principal apse.
More time is given, not just so that all those whom the Lord calls may be marked with the baptismal seal, but also so that all those who must be killed, are killed propter Verbum Dei et propter testimonium quod habebant. In fact, the souls of those who were sacrificed, who received the baptism of blood in martyrdom, that is, and who are calling for justice to be done at last, are told “to be patient a little longer [tempus modicum], until the roll be completed of their fellow-servants and brothers who were still to be killed as they had been” (The Revelation to John 6, 11). To help them be patient, the One who sits on the throne dresses them in stoles of glory washed white in the blood of the Lamb. Having been given these, they will be able to wait in peace, in the knowledge that others will come to complete the number of martyrs and so hasten the definitive redemption.
 The time of waiting is nevertheless brief, the time of history is truly a tempus modicum: “The Lord is not delaying the fulfilment of his promise … This brief interval of time seems long to us because it continues yet; but as soon as it is over, we will realize how short it was” (Saint Augustine, Commentary on the Gospel of John 101, 6). Time has become short after the victory of Christ. And, on the opening of the sixth seal, the sun and the moon on the façade of the left arch change color and an angel prepares to breathe a wind that will make the stars fall from the sky like a storm shaking figs from the tree; another angel bears the golden incense-burner through which, even as the scent of the prayers of the saints rises, will soon fall on the earth the wrathful fire of the One sitting on the throne and of the Lamb.
If the brevity of the time tries the patience of those who await justice, in the dragon it arouses a “wrathful lust for power born of the anguish of the time that is escaping his hold”, wrote Schlier in the essay we mentioned. Alongside the dragon in the small right apse, and like that marvelous scene painted on the counter-facade of the Civate church on Mount Pedale not far from Lecco, North Italy, the Anagni frescoes also once featured a work, now lost, depicting the Ascension of the Lord, or, as Revelation puts it, the taking of the child “straight up to God and to his throne” (cf The Revelation to John 12, 5).  It is, in fact, “with the Ascension of Jesus Christ to heaven”, Schlier continues, “that the dragon, the ideal figure of all things satanic, of the absolute power of egoism, is hurled down to earth”.
Having now precipitated to earth by virtue of the Ascension of the Lord, the dragon “sprang in pursuit of the woman” (The Revelation to John 12, 13), who escapes him, however, on the wings of an eagle (and we find her again with the son and near John in the small left apse). And so the dragon “went away to make war on the rest of her children, who obey God’s commandments and have in themselves the witness of Jesus” (The Revelation to John 12, 17). The dragon, at Anagni, ends up with the 18 martyr saints, or those who have the witness of Jesus in themselves, 18 being the numerical value, as all the Fathers and Medieval writers tell us, of the initials IE of the name, Jesus. (The number of the beast – 666 – is a crudely false distortion of this). In Civate, too, there are eighteen martyr saints in the frescoes inside the little dome of the ciborium: “That is why they are standing in front of the throne of God and serving him day and night in his sanctuary; and the One who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them” (The Revelation to John 7, 15).
But the martyrs, who die “to render the future revealed by Christ accessible even to their enemies”, are not alone in dying, which is to say in tangibly exposing “the anachronism of a world which still now presumes to assert itself”, as Schlier writes. The virgins die, too, obeying. The whole area of the small left apse is dedicated to them, revolving around Mary, Virgin of virgins. Te nimis implorant virgo iubilant et adorant. Dum tibi subduntur natum moriendo secuntur. These verses echoing the Ambrosian hymn, “Iesu corona virginum”, run al­ong the small left apse in the panel separating the Madonna and Child (surrounded on top by two holy virgins and by the two Johns) from the story of the chastity and martyrdom of Secondina below. “How they implore you, how they praise you and venerate you, O Virgin. While to you they submit, dying, they follow your Son”. And this is all any poor sinner wants to do and experience, sinner neither virgin nor martyr who, a participant in the triumphant love of Christ, has for centuries contemplated the ceilings of the Anagni crypt in repentance and devotion. “When I think that a man, a young man, an individual, cannot marry a woman except through the love of Christ – it seems I’ve already said this before: except through the love of Christ – when we say this we feel all the immensity (immensity means not commensurable, not com­­parable in size), the incommensurability of a point of view, which is the point of view, but also the point of re-birth, of the birth of re-birth” (Luigi Giussani).                                        

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