The Last Judgment

The Iconography
The few paleo-Christian Last Judgments I have examined picture Matthew 25's separation of the "sheep" from the "goats." Christ stands or sits between them, showing by his gestures which group is welcome and which is not. (See the first picture at right.)

Romanesque images are more elaborate. Christ sits enthroned above in a mandorla attended by angels while below him the dead rise from their graves and are conducted either to Heaven or to Hell, which is pictured as a monstrous maw. One or more angels will be blowing trumpets. (See the sculpture pictured above. The raising of the dead comes from I Corinthians 15:52, the trumpets from I Thessalonians 4:16-17, and the other details from Matthew 25:31-46.) One interesting case also invokes the Father by picturing the empty throne of the Temple above the mandorla.

Mandorlas and thrones are found less often in the 15th century, and they become rare in later periods. Christ's gesture in the sculpture above, with the right arm raised in an shape, is seen occasionally in medieval images but becomes common in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, most notably in the Rubens Great Last Judgment.

Medieval examples often have St. Michael weighing the souls on a balance scale while a demon tries to cheat by pulling on one of the plates, as in the third picture at right.

Sometimes this iconography is combined with that of the Deësis: As he sits above in the usual position, Christ is flanked by Mary and John, who pray for the people below while angels bring him the instruments of the Passion as a reminder of his mercy (example). In this example the artist makes it clear that it is specifically for the sinners, not the saved, that John and Mary intercede.

This primary model is not the only way the final judgment may be pictured. Some images narrow the focus, such as this evocation of the fate of sinners, or they reimagine the scene, as in the second picture at right, where souls are called up from a primal mud.

Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2018-01-31.

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SHOWN ABOVE

In the Last Judgment tympanum at Conques, France (12th century) Christ's hand gestures welcome the saved on one side and reject the damned on the other. For a detailed discussion of this work, follow this link.

OTHER IMAGES

In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus predicts a final judg­ment in which he will se­pa­rate the "sheep" from the "goats" (i.e., those who suc­cored his "least breth­ren" in their need from those who did not). Here we see only the right-hand ges­ture of wel­come, the left being con­cealed with­in his to­ga. See the de­scrip­tion page.

Manuscript illumination by Lorenzo Monaco, 15th century – See the description page.

A wall paint­ing in Bur­gos, Spain. St. Mi­chael weighs souls while a de­mon tries to cheat. See the de­scrip­tion page.

MORE IMAGES

  • Medieval panel of the Last Judgment.
  • 14th century: Relief carving at Orvieto Cathedral.
  • 14th century: In Alberegno's Polyptych of the Apocalypse, two of the five panels present images of the Final Judgment drawn from the Book of Revelation.
  • 19th century: fresco in Taufers, Italy.

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