Preoccupations with the end of days

The end of the world is nigh, 2012 often cited as the year everything generally comes to an end. Depending on one’s leaning, humanity, the world and history will cease to exist courtesy of either a black hole, a blisteringly abnormal solar maximum, a thunderous asteroid or the planet Nibiru colliding with earth.
Such ideas may seem ridiculous, but it’s not new thinking. Humanity has long been preoccupied with the end of days and eschatology – one aspect of theology and philosophy that studies death, judgment, heaven and hell – has always been part of both conscious and unconscious thinking. Everything we understand about life has an ending after all.
The ultimate day of reckoning is the subject of a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, with a specific slant on the thinking of early Europeans, which was characterised by periods of terror, disquiet and despair.
Entitled the Four Horsemen: Apocalypse, Death and Disaster, the show is made up of 150 works of art, which explores the way artists examined this unease between the fifteenth and eighteenth century.
Cathy Leahy, senior curator of prints and drawings at the National Gallery of Victoria, said that the exhibition takes its name from the four harbingers of the last judgement, as described in the Book of Revelation. They are conquest, famine, war and death.
“And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and hell followed with him,” Revelation 6:8 reads. “And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.”
With passages like this, against a backdrop of religious fervour, where natural disasters, rampant disease and social and political turmoil were seen as God’s punishment for man’s sin, artists found themselves exploring the integrity of the human species, and ultimately its vulnerability. Everything was darkened.
“This was a period when the plague, famine and war were affecting the majority of the population in Europe and death could strike on a massive scale at any time,” elaborates Dr Petra Kayser, curator of Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery of Victoria.
“These circumstances led to a different awareness of mortality which is reflected in the visual culture of the period. Many images in The Four Horsemen, including book illustrations by Michael Wolgemut and prints by Hans Holbein, show Death personified as a skeleton, seizing individuals from all levels of society in the ‘Dance of Death’.”
Suitably then, much of this, produced during the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, was rather macabre, the fragility and uncertainty of life during this epoch dark, morose and ominous. It was as if they were attempting to realise what horrors were to come. Lucky then what followed was the Age of Enlightenment.
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