Sunday, December 2, 2018

“He Is Coming!”


Frans Francker II, Last Judgment
Flemish, 1606
Private Collection



“Jesus said to his disciples:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will die of fright
in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then they will see the Son of Man
coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
But when these signs begin to happen,
stand erect and raise your heads
because your redemption is at hand.

“Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy
from carousing and drunkenness
and the anxieties of daily life,
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.
For that day will assault everyone
who lives on the face of the earth.
Be vigilant at all times
and pray that you have the strength
to escape the tribulations that are imminent
and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
(Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent, Year C)



Each year, at the beginning of Advent, the Church reminds us of the prophecies of Jesus and asks us to stop, to ponder and to prepare for our own deaths and the final end of all life. 

Just before Luke begins the story of the Passion of Jesus he presents us with a series of prophecies made by Jesus.  Some of them are narrowly applicable to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman armies, which took place in 70 AD, about 35 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus and within the lifetime of the evangelist.  However, most of the prophecy is more widely applicable and seems to point to a more worldwide event, usually believed to be the end of the world.  This passage from the Gospel of Luke is the one chosen by the Church for the Gospel Cycle of Year C.  Signs of the end are referred to and so are the effects it will have on people.   Most will be “perplexed”, some “will die of fright” (Luke 21:25-26).  Those who are vigilant have the best chance of facing the predicted coming of the “Son of Man”, Jesus, the great judge of this world, of all worlds and of all time.

These signs of the end have inspired artists in many of their compositions in imagining the end of the world and the Last Judgment.   Beginning with the Middle Ages they have shown us the image of Jesus, “coming in a cloud with power and great glory”   as the dead rise from their graves and the living tremble in fear as all prepare to “stand before the Son of Man” and give Him an account of the way they have lived their lives.  It is, in fact, the image of the Last Judgment (Luke 21:27).

The image of the majestic Christ appears early in Christian art, in the fourth century, just after the end of the persecutions, at the same time that the first churches were under construction.  One such image appears in the mausoleum of the Christian princess, Constantina, daughter of Constantine, the Emperor who removed the legal prohibitions on Christianity.  

Christ in Majesty
Roman, c. 350
Rome, Mausoleum of Constantina (Santa Costanza)

This image of power passes into Byzantine art and then into Western European medieval art.  While it is the image of the Lord of the Universe, it is not yet an image of the awesome Judge of the World.  That aspect of the image began to appear around the year 1000 with the art of the Reichenau school of manuscript painting, which was patronized by the Ottonian dynasty of Holy Roman Emperors.

Last Judgment
From the Book of Pericopes of Henry II
German (Reichenau), c.1007-1012
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4452, fol. 202r

This image, derived from that of the Roman Emperors, has been the dominant image of the Christ, as the Great Judge of the World from that day to the present.  It has undergone some modification, as we shall see, but the basic image of the central, commanding figure has remained basically the same through time.

What has changed are the details of the composition that surround the figure of Christ.  In the Reichenau paintings He appears very much like an Emperor, surrounded by his court (in this case, the Apostles and angels) and elevated above those who are being judged. 

By the end of the eleventh century, the figure of Christ has been surrounded by an almond shaped frame, known as a mandorla. 


Last Judgment
French, c. 1090
Charlieu, Church of Saint-Fortunat

In many of the images of the Last Judgment that were placed over the doors of medieval churches, Christ appears in a mandorla.  In France, this was especially true in cathedrals and other churches built in what is called the Romanesque style.  


Last Judgment
French, c. 1125-1135
Conques, Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy

Gislebertus, Last Judgment
French, c. 1130-1145
Autun, Cathedral of Saint-Lazare

In the later buildings in the Gothic style, Christ still appears as the Emperor amid his court, but the mandorla has disappeared and his gestures are more benign than previously.  He shows His wounds and is often accompanied by an angel who holds the cross from His sacrifice.  He is also often joined by two visually subordinate figures who plead in prayer for the souls being judged, the Virgin Mary and either of the two biblical Saint Johns, John the Evangelist or John the Baptist. 


Last Judgment (South Transept)
French, c.1210
Chartres, Cathedral of Notre-Dame

Last Judgment
French, c. 1220
Paris, Cathedral of Notre-Dame

Last Judgment
German, c. 1225-1237
Bamberg, Cathedral

Last Judgment
Spanish, c. 1250-1300
Leon, Cathedral

Both of these compositional types, Christ as Emperor in the mandorla, or Christ the benevolent without the mandorla, transferred from stone to paint and have remained the typical ways in which artists have imagined this important theme.

Last Judgment
Byzantine, c. 1240-1300
Florence, Baptistry


Nicola Pisano, Last Judgment
Italian, c. 1260
Pisa, Baptistry
Cimabue, Last Judgment, Christ
Italian, c. 1277-1280
Assisi, Basilica of San Francesco, Upper Church
Pietro Cavallini, Last Judgment (center)
Italian, c. 1300
Rome, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere
Giotto, Last Judgment
Italian, 1306
Padua, Arena-Scrovegni Chapel
Last Judgment
From the Missal of Saint Eulalia
Spanish, 1403
Barcelona, Cathedral
Lorenzo Monaco, Last Judgment
From an Antiphonary
Italian, 1406
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection
Item 1975.1.2485, fol. 124v
Fra Angelico and Workshop, Last Judgment
Italian, c. 1431
Florence, Museo di San Marco

Also, appearing in later paintings are two new elements, the rainbow and the clouds.  The origin of the rainbow is biblical.  In the descriptions of the throne of God in both the Book of Ezekiel and the Book of Revelation are the basis for the first image, that of the rainbow.  The biblical texts, Ezekiel, Chapter 2 and Revelation Chapters 1 and 4, describe the throne of God with images borrowed from their experience of the earth: from jewels, from the weather and from fire.  An example is this passage from Ezekiel 2 “Just like the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day so was the appearance of brilliance that surrounded him” (Ezekiel 2:28). Such elements from their descriptions often appear as part of the surroundings of the figure of Jesus in paintings of the Last Judgment.


Last Judgment
From a Book of Hours
French (Rouen). 1450-1500
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 3134, fol. 67v
Last Judgment
From the Ottheinrich Bible
German (Regensburg), c. 1400-1600
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS Hss Cgm 8010(1), fol. 81
Last Judgment
German c. 1460-1470
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum & Fondation Corbaud
Master Francois, Last Judgment
From Les Sept articles de la foi by Jean Chappuis
French, c. 1470
Chicago, Art Institute


Joos van Cleve, Last Judgment
Dutch, c. 1520-1525
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Jan Provost, Last Judgment
Flemish, 1525
Bruges, Groeninge Museum

Some images pick up additional details from the Book of Revelation, such as the sword described in Revelation 1:16.  

Last Judgment
German, After 1400
Wuerzburg, Episcopal Collection


In others angels surrounding Jesus hold the instruments of the Passion as a reminder of the act that redeemed the world and those people who will be saved at the end.
Last Judgment
From the Psalter of St. Louis and of Blanche of Castille
French, c. 1225
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 1186, fol. 170
Last Judgment
From Jugement et des XV signes
French, c. 1250
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 3516, fol. 154v
Stefan Lochner, Last Judgment
German, c. 1435
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum
Jan van Eyck and Workshop Assistant, The Last Judgment (Right panel of a diptych)
Dutch, c. 1440-1441
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
One of the most interesting things in this panel, which you can only see with a high level zoom, is that the group of female saints, who are standing directly under the feet of Christ, appear to be singing.  In addition, every tiny face in the picture has its own individual expression.  

Last Judgment
Spanish, c. 1486-1515
Burgos, San Nicolas de Bari

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries many images of the Last Judgment were painted in the form of triptychs, three paneled paintings, used as altarpieces in churches or for private devotional aids in the home.  In these pictures the central panel was the Last Judgment while the left wing typically showed the reception of the saved and blessed into heaven, and the right wing showed the torments that awaited the arriving souls of the damned.  These were frequently narrative, as the wings continued stories that were already beginning in the central panel.  One strain of narratives among the painters of the Low Countries, deriving from Jan van Eyck’s diptych in the Metropolitan Museum (see the Judgment panel above), feature the figure of Saint Michael the Archangel, vigorously thrusting the damned into hell or weighing them in the balance to determine the amount of good and evil deeds done in their lives.

Rogier van der Weyden, Last Judgment
Flemish, c. 1446-1452
Beaune, Musee de l'Hotel-Dieu




Fra Angelico, Last Judgment
Italian, c 1450
Berlin, Gemaeldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Hans Memling, Last Judgment Triptych
German, c. 1467-1471
Strasbourg, Musee des Beaux-Arts
Hieronymous Bosch and Studio, Last Judgment Triptych
Dutch, c. 1480-1520
Bruges Groeningemusuem,
Master of the Orleans Triptych, Last Judgment
French, c. 1500
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection
Hieronymous Bosch, Last Judgment Triptych
German, c. 1504-1508
Vienna, Akademie der bildenden Kuenste

Bernaert van Orley, Last Judgment
Flemish, c. 1519-1525
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten 
Jean Bellegambe, Last Judgment
Flemish, c. 1525
Berlin, Gemaeldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Lucas van Leyden, Last Judgment
Dutch, 1527
Leiden, Stedelkjk Museum De Lakenhal


As one might expect, Michelangelo Buonarotti, that powerhouse of imagination and breaker of artistic rules, changed the status quo.  Always a reluctant painter, he nevertheless changed painting forever with his dynamic reimagining of the Last Judgment scene for the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.

Michelangelo Buonarotti, Last Judgment (full)
Italian, 1537-1541
Vatican, Sistine Chapel

His Sistine Last Judgment scandalized many for its depiction of nakedness, even though images of the Last Judgment in both sculpture and painting had frequently shown the resurrected souls and always the damned souls as naked figures.  It was not the nudity of his figures, but the of virtually all the figures (only the Virgin Mary is fully clothes), including Christ, that upset the critics. 

However, artists, while mostly rejecting the nudity (at least for those in heaven), grasped the dynamism of the composition and borrowed massively from it. 


Pieter Pourbus, Last Judgment
Flemish, 1551
Bruges, Groeninge Museum
Tintoretto, Last Judgment
Italian, c. 1560-1562
Venice, Church of the Madonna dell'Orto
Frans Floris, Last Judgment
Flemish, 1565
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
Camillo Procaccini, Last Judgment
Italian, c. 1585-1587
Reggio Emilia, Church of San Prospero
Jean Cousin II, Last Judgment
French, 1585
Paris, Musee du Louvre
Raphael Coxcie, Last Judgment
Flemish, c. 1590-1610
Ghent, Museum voor Schone Kunsten
Hieronymous Francken II, Last Judgment
Flemish, c. 1605-1610
Salzburg, Residenzgalerie


They often introduced some of the elements of the medieval images, such as the mandorla, now seen as a light-filled emanation from Christ, and the instruments of the Passion, but the compositions were no longer static.  Human forms writhe in prayer or torment, while military angels send them to hell. 


Rubens, Last Judgment
Flemish, 1617
Munich, Alte Pinakothek
Rubens, Small Last Judgment
Flemish, c. 1617-1620
Munich, Alte Pinachothek
Jacob van Campen, Last Judgment
Dutch, c. 1640-1657
Amersfoort, St. Joriskerk
Felix Anton Schleffler, The Last Judgment, The Damned
German, 1749
Wroclaw (Poland), Church of St. John the Baptist_
Peter von Cornelius, Last Judgment
German, c. 1836-1839
Munich, Church of Saint Louis
This picture owes nearly as much to Raphael, especially from the Disputa, as it does to Michelangelo.
There is a hymn, my favorite one in fact, which is sung during these early days of Advent, “Lo, He Comes With Clouds Descending”.  Written by Charles Cennick and Charles Wesley in the eighteenth century, it is a paraphrase and expansion of the text of a hymn in Revelation 1:7.  It captures the essence of this first week of the season.  He is coming again, we do not know the day or hour, but He is coming and we must be ready to greet Him.



© Margaret Duffy, 2018

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