The Mystery of the Last Judgment

Last Judgment by Lieven van den Clite, 1413. Photo by: Rama/Creative Commons


In theology, a mystery is defined as a truth that exceeds the natural power of knowing. Nothing so profound can be explained fully in either words or pictures. But the Catholic response is not to give up talking about it or making pictures of it. Divine mysteries are not empty and silent, but inexhaustibly full and interesting.

The greater the mystery, the more inadequate the words and pictures. And yet the more there is to say and depict! Perhaps no subject presents a greater challenge to the religious artist than the Last Judgment. It does not even have a setting in a definite time and place. As is described in the Book of Revelation:

A throne was there in heaven, and on the throne sat one whose appearance sparkled like jasper and carnelian. Around the throne was a halo as brilliant as an emerald. Surrounding the throne I saw twenty-four other thrones on which twenty-four elders sat, dressed in white garments and with gold crowns on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder. Seven flaming torches burned in front of the throne, which are the seven spirits of God. In front of the throne was something that resembled a sea of glass like crystal. In the center and around the throne, there were four living creatures covered with eyes in front and in back. (Revelation 4:2–6)

It’s a daunting task indeed to depict this in mere paint or stone; little wonder that most artists simplified the vision considerably. In the Latin West, the combination of the enthroned judge and the four living creatures became the icon of Christ in Majesty. In Byzantine art, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist are often placed beside Jesus Christ, advocating for mankind before its judge. This arrangement is called deësis, or “supplication.” Other artists found guidance instead in the Gospel of St. Matthew:

And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming upon the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a trumpet blast, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. (Matthew 24:30–31)

This beautiful panel painting was made by the Flemish artist Lieven van den Clite in 1413. Jesus Christ displays his wounds, the marks of his sacred humanity. Angels carry the instruments of the Passion and the holy cross, which the Church Fathers identified as the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. The Twelve Apostles sit below, on 12 seats judging the 12 tribes of Israel.

Last Judgment by Lieven van den Clite, 1413. Photo by: Rama/Creative Commons

Lieven van den Clite, like most Flemish and German artists of the late Middle Ages, included the deësis, as well. Mary and John the Baptist kneel in prayer at the ends of the rainbow. Arguably, these are the most impartial advocates for humanity, for the Blessed Virgin was freed from original sin from the beginning of her existence (as the Immaculate Conception), and the Baptist was sanctified before birth when he leapt for joy in the womb of St. Elizabeth.

French medieval artists favored a different composition in which Mary and St. John the Apostle are the two suppliants. They flank Jesus Christ at his second coming just as they did at his crucifixion. Why would these two be appropriate? Perhaps because many believe both had their bodies taken to heaven soon after death, and therefore can take their places beside Jesus Christ before the general resurrection. The Blessed Virgin’s glorious assumption was of course declared dogma, whereas a more tenuous legend persisted for some centuries regarding the apostle’s alleged assumption.

Is it correct to depict St. John the Apostle or St. John the Baptist here? I cannot answer, for the entire event is a mystery. A story is related in The Golden Legend of two doctors of theology who argued over which of these two saints was greater. Each of the saints miraculously appeared to his champion, saying: “We get along very well together in heaven! Don’t start disputes about us on earth!”

Why is the terrain from which the dead rise flat and featureless? The Venerable Bede described 15 cosmic signs of the end of the world that detail the burning up of seas and the flattening of mountains and end with the consumption of land and sky by fire. The dead rise first as mummies or skeletons before becoming enfleshed, like the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision (see Ezekiel 37). A miser clinging to gold coins as he is dragged to hell is a moral lesson rather than a theological one — surely the consuming fire would have melted these!

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