Art historians believe that Botticelli was influenced by the sermons of Girolamo Savonarola—a Dominican monk who urged both rich and poor alike to repent for their sins and renounce worldly pleasures. Certain that the apocalypse was near, Savonarola predicted, “the sword of the Lord will come upon the earth swiftly and soon” in the form of war, pestilence and famine.
4. The Germanic Flood That Never Came
In 1499, the German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Stöffler predicted that a vast flood would engulf the world on February 20, 1524. (His calculations foretold 20 planetary conjunctions during this year—16 of which would take place in a “watery sign,” a.k.a. Pisces.)
In Europe, more than 100 different pamphlets were published endorsing Stöffler’s doomsday prophecy. Business boomed for boat-builders, not least for German nobleman Count von Iggleheim, who constructed a three-story ark on the Rhine.
Although 1524 was a drought year in Europe, a light rain did fall on the designated day. Crowds of people—hoping to gain a seat on Iggleheim’s ark—began to riot. Hundreds were killed and the count was stoned to death.
Stöffler later recalculated the actual date to be 1528, but by then his reputation as a soothsayer had been ruined. That’s kind of a shame because, according to a story told in 1558 by German historian Hieronymus Wolf, Stöffler once predicted that his life would be endangered by a “falling body.” He chose to spend that day indoors, where, during a discussion with friends, Stöffler reached to grab a book from a shelf, which came loose and smashed him on the head, seriously injuring him.
5. Black Skies Over New England
At 9 a.m. on May 19, 1780, the sky over New England was enveloped in darkness. An 1881 article in Harper’s Magazine stated that, “Birds went to roost, cocks crowed at mid-day as at midnight, and the animals were plainly terrified.”
The unnatural gloom is believed to have been caused by smoke from forest fires, possibly coupled with heavy fog. But at the time, some feared the worst. “People [came] out wringing their hands and howling, the Day of Judgment is come,” recalled a Revolutionary War fifer.
The “Dark Day” ended at midnight, when the stars once again became visible in the night sky. But lingering concerns about a pending apocalypse prompted some people to seek out an obscure Christian sect—the Shakers—who had recently settled near Albany, New York. A splinter of the Quaker movement, the Shakers preached complete celibacy as the true path to redemption. The Shakers knew an opportunity when they saw one and embarked on a 26-month mission throughout New England, which brought them hundreds of converts.