1. The First Warnings From Assyria
From This Story
An Assyrian clay tablet dating to around 2800 B.C. bears the inscription: “Our Earth is degenerate in these later days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.”
The world didn’t end (just look around), and despite the plague of corruption and petulant teenagers, four centuries later the Assyrians would establish an empire that eventually encompassed most of the Near East. The Assyrian Empire came to an abrupt end in 612 B.C., when its capital was attacked by the Babylonian army. Still, by the standards of ancient empires, 18 centuries wasn’t such a bad run.
2. Crusaders’ Concerns
Pope Innocent III relied upon apocalyptic theology in his efforts to rally Europe to launch a fifth crusade to capture Jerusalem and the rest of the Holy Land from the Ayyubid Empire. He identified the rise of Islam as the reign of the Antichrist—whose defeat would usher in the Second Coming.
In 1213, Innocent III wrote: “A son of perdition has arisen, the false prophet Muhammed, who has seduced many men from the truth by worldly enticements and the pleasures of the flesh… we nevertheless put our trust in the Lord who has already given us a sign that good is to come, that the end of this beast is approaching, whose number, according to the Revelation of Saint John, will end in 666 years, of which already nearly 600 have passed.”
The predicted date was 1284. Seven years later, the last crusader kingdom fell, when the Sultan Khalil conquered the city of Acre, in present-day Israel. The rest of the world, however, remained intact.
3. Botticelli Paints His Fears
The Renaissance is remembered as a golden age of art and learning, but the era also marked a resurgence in apocalyptic prophecies. The reason? “Advances in time keeping and in astronomy encouraged standardization of the calendar,” writes David Nirenberg, a professor of medieval history at the University of Chicago, “while a string of calamities (from the European point of view], such as the Turkish conquest of Constantinople… fomented a new numerological apocalyptic interest.”
Expectations of the apocalypse found their expression in the art of the period—most famously in The Mystical Nativity, painted by Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli. The lower part of the painting depicts several small devils wedged under rocks or pinned to the ground, while a Greek inscription offers this gloomy prediction: “I, Sandro, painted this picture at the end of the year 1500 in the troubles of Italy in the half time after the time according to the eleventh chapter of St. John in the second woe of the Apocalypse in the loosing of the devil for three and a half years. Then he will be chained in the twelfth chapter and we shall see him trodden down as in this picture.” (That would place the apocalypse at around A.D. 1504.)