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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Apocalypse Now and Then Seminar - Judgement and Mercy: The Gentle Apocalypse of the Ruthwell Cross

7th March 2011, 17:30 to 18:30, IAS Seminar Room, Cosin's Hall, Palace Green, Professor Eamonn O’Carragain (University College Cork)

Two related high crosses, at Bewcastle and at Ruthwell, are the earliest surviving visual representations of the Apocalypse from Christian Anglo-Saxon England. While later representations (For example, at Rothbury and at Lindisfarne) have an element of terror about them, this is not true of Bewcastle or of Ruthwell. At Bewcastle, the programme of the high cross culminates in images of a dead king (the Falconer), a call for prayers for the dead, and two majestic images of Christ.

At Ruthwell, these two images of the Acclamation of Christ are placed in a still wider perspective. The Ruthwell programme presents Lent as a time for growth in faith and in repentance, a preparation for the Easter rites of initiation, culminating in the Eucharist, where the Ruthwell community comes to participate in Christ's victory over death and glory in heaven. The programme indeed implies that repentance and conversion are urgent; but all fear is tempered by seeing repentance in the context of gift-exchange. In the earliest English apocalypses, at Bewcastle and even more clearly at Ruthwell, Judgement is always tempered with mercy.

Depictions of apocalypse - understood as revelation and/or the end of the world, in both religious and secular discourses - serve a variety of functions, ranging from the political to the scientific, and the theological to the anthropological. They can reinforce or subvert power structures, interrogate what it is to be human, and figure the future in order to reflect on the present. This interdisciplinary seminar series brings together experts from a number of disciplines to reflect on two intertwined themes. The first explores the functions served by end-of-world narratives and pictures, that is, it focuses on why apocalyptic stories are told rather than on what particular stories are told. The second analyses the ways in which the apocalyptic is characterized by a relationship with particular sorts of form, language and image, for example, metaphors and fictions, pictures, performances, and poems.

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