The Last Judgment
The few paleo-Christian Last Judgments I have examined picture the separation of the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31-33). 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 will be seated on a rainbow throne 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. One interesting case also represents the Father by picturing the empty throne of the Temple above the mandorla.
The rainbow is from Revelation 4:3, the raising of the dead and the trumpets from I Corinthians 15:52, I Thessalonians 4:16-17, and Revelation 8:1-12.
Sometimes images of this type will occupy the entire counterfaçade, for example at Torcello's 12th-century cathedral, Genoa's Cathedral of St. Lawrence (1307-12), and the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. This use of the counterfaçade seems to have gone out of favor after the 14th century.
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. Finally, in the late Middle Ages literary and pictorial genres focused on the assembling for judgment of sinners (in the art) or of exemplars of both vice and virtue (in the literature). In literature such as the Chester Last Judgment, men and women of various stations in society announce their sins or virtues and are conducted to their reward.1 In the art only sinners of various kinds are pictured, led on their way by skeletons example.
Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2018-01-31.
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.