Our Mother of Mercy and Y1K

Madonna della Misericordia, Church of San Tomá, Venice, mid 14th century to early 15th century
Remember Y2K? I can’t believe that it has been ten years since we experienced the Y2K drama and anxiety. I recall that my mom gave our neighbors hand-powered flashlights as a holiday gift that year (almost entirely in jest).
Remember how some people proclaimed that Y2K would bring the end of the world? This actually isn’t surprising, since history has shown a repeated end-of-the-world fear with the approach of a new year/century/millenium. Actually, it’s interesting to see how this fear even has affected art. I think the most prominent (and interesting) example is the imagery for Our Mother of Mercy, which displays the Virgin protectively taking her protégés/children underneath her cloak (see a late medieval example above). Henry Kraus has discussed that this iconography developed in the tenth century by the order of Cluny, “possibly in response to the terror of the world’s end that spread abroad with the approach of the Year Thousand.”1 This protective, loving image of the Virgin must have brought comfort to devout medieval worshipers who feared that the world was ending in Y1K.
Is it safe to argue, then, that the Middle Ages experienced a “Y1K”? I think so. The iconography for Our Mother of Mercy gives evidence for it! Ha!
Do you have a favorite work of art that is inspired by an end-of-the-world theme?
Having written about this end-of-the-world gloom, it seems a little ironic to wish everyone a Happy New Year. Nonetheless, I hope that this upcoming year is better and brighter for everyone. Personally, I’m not focusing on possibilities that the world will end anytime in 2011. In fact, I’ve already thought to write a post on Mayan art with the advent of 2012… 😉
Happy New Year!
1 Henry Kraus, “Eve and Mary: Conflicting Images of Medieval Woman,” in Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, eds. (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1982), 84. See also Mlle. Chatel, “Le culte de la vierge Marie en France, du Ve au XIIIe siécle,” Théses-Sorbonne (Paris, 1945): 151-52.
  • e says:

    Okay, so what I'm going to say pretty much doesn't relate to your post at all, however, it's what it made me think of …

    I don't know — or can't think of — any end of the world art pieces off hand. But, when I was reading this, it reminded me of all the art ancient civilizations (for example: the Egyptians) created to deal with their fear of the afterlife.
    The tombs, the paintings on the wall, nearly everything was designed to make their entry into the next world less scary and, so as it seems, it was all very much art.

  • heidenkind says:

    The end is nigh. 🙂

    I would say my favorite apocalyptic work is Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights. Does that count? It seems pretty apocalyptic to me.

  • Dr. F says:

    Probably the best example of the End of the World is the fresco cycle in the S. Brisio chapel in Orvieto. It was begun by Fra Angelico but completed years later by Luca Signorelli in 1504 at the height of the High Renaissance.

    I find it hard to believe that devotion to the Madonna of Misericordia goes back to the 10th century.

    Moreover, I think that the hysteria over Y2K in our "enlightened" age was much greater than any experienced in Medieval Europe. I wonder how many people actually knew it was the year 1000.


  • The Clever Pup says:

    Happy New Year!

  • Zillah says:

    while i disagree w/ kraus' argument (as well as a number of other things in his essay), i think it's an interesting idea that might bear more weight if the image had first appeared a few centuries later, during the height of the plague as well as some pretty massive famines. this image seems to work better with conflations of mary and ecclesia.

    it is intriguing that with all of the highly sophisticated apocalyptic thought and theology in the middle ages, the year 1000 wasn't a huge deal to them, even though they were completely aware of it. some of the most interesting pre-1000 apocalyptic art is in manuscripts of the beatus apocalypse.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Interesting post M! It definitely wasn't a global phenomenon like our experience of Y2K, but there are some interesting parallels.

    The one I am most familiar with is that associated with the year 1500 – as noted in the work Frank mentioned, and Botticelli's Mystic Nativity. This was derived from the Book of Revelation mentioning "the half time after the time"

    I was in Mexico in 2006 and remembered asking our Mayan guide about the 2012 calendar business. He made some very colourful comments about Americans misinterpreting their culture 🙂 The clean version of it is, that like any calendar, it merely cycles through. Because it was such a long cycle, the Mayans did not properly identify the next cycle, leading to the 'world ends' theories by crackpots.

    Frank also mentions an interesting point about calendars and perception of time – many of the Italian city states and parts of Europe were on different calendars. In the 1450s it was possible to travel back in time on a couple of days journey to neighbouring Italian city states!


  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments!

    e, you bring up an interesting topic about fear of the afterlife. Sometime I'll have to watch one of the episodes of "How Art Made the World" with you. Nigel Spivey (the art historian in the series) spends a whole episode exploring how different cultures manifest their fear of the afterlife through art.

    heidenkind, Bosch totally counts. Hell and apocalypses wouldn't be the same without him. 🙂

    Lutz, your link didn't paste completely right, but I think you posted The Vision of Saint John by El Greco. That's a great work of art – I wasn't familiar with it before!

    Dr. F, I like your Signorelli suggestion. I found a great detail of "The Damned" from that fresco here.

    Zillah, I'd be interested to hear other reasons why you disagree with Kraus' essay. I'll have to pick your brain sometime. (It seems, though, that you mostly disagree with this argument since you don't find that the year 1000 was a big deal to people in the Middle Ages, right?)

    H Niyazi: Yes, I do think that Americans have misinterpreted the Mayan calendar. It's a whole bunch of silliness, but it has made some good stories for the "Twilight Zone" books/series (did that show ever air in Australia?)

    Fun information about the Renaissance calendar, too. I wasn't aware of that, but I'm not surprised that Italian city-states (and other European areas) didn't agree on the calendar day. They had a hard time agreeing on things, didn't they? 🙂

  • Zillah says:

    kraus just didn't seem to provide much support for this argument (or a lot of other ones he made). it was kind of along the lines of "in the middle ages life was really awful and then there was the year 1000 and life must have been really awful then so they thought the apocalypse was nigh." apocalypticism becomes a bigger deal later on in the middle ages than at this time, and the apocalyptic texts (like the beatus) have very different imagery. i would have liked to see him give more of an analysis of the particular aims of the clunaic order at this time and how playing with the idea of mary as ecclesia would have stemmed from their political and religious goals c. 1000.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.