What will the next plague bring?

Jul 25, 2021 by

by Suzannah Lipscomb, UnHerd:

Half a millennium ago, people thought much more about the end of the world than we do. The early 16th century was an age obsessed with eschatology, the branch of theology preoccupied with judgement day. They were convinced they were living in the final throes of humanity, and they had a pretty good idea about what they thought would spell our downfall.

It might feel counterintuitive to look to history for insight into the end of the world — because, of course, we’re still here and the world clearly didn’t end when our ancestors thought it would. But if this past year has shown us anything, it’s that certain historic fears — of pestilence and pandemics, for instance — were not misplaced.

So, let us turn to Albrecht Dürer’s extraordinary woodcut of 1498, which depicts Four Horsemen. They ride with a wild fury. Their weapons are raised, their steeds gallop. Before and beneath them people cower and fall. They trample all in their path. The image is an illustration of the Book of the Revelation of St John, also known as the Apocalypse.

In chapter six, it describes four horses of different colours. On a white horse rides a crowned archer who sets out to conquer. On a red horse sits a rider bearing a great sword who is granted the right to take peace from the earth. The black horse’s rider holds a pair of scales. And he who sits on the final, pale (from the Latin pallor) horse — depicted by Dürer as skeletal and wizen — has the name Death (think of Clint Eastwood’s 1985 film Pale Rider).

Dürer created his woodcut in 1498, two years before the world was expected to end. But even if 1500 failed to bring the Last Judgement, as the 16th century dawned, there were many signs to indicate that the end approached.

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