Sunday, November 27, 2011

"Watch!" The First Sunday of Advent, Year B

Jean Cousin the Younger, Last Judgment
French, 1585
Paris, Musee du Louvre
"Jesus said to his disciples:
"Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.
It is like a man traveling abroad.
He leaves home and places his servants in charge,
each with his own work,
and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.
Watch, therefore;
you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming,
whether in the evening, or at midnight,
or at cockcrow, or in the morning.
May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.
What I say to you, I say to all: 'Watch!'" 
(Mark 13:33-37)

Welcome to the season of Advent, that annually repeating time of preparation for each Christmas that also reminds us of our position in time. We look backward to the long wait of Israel for the Messiah at the same time as we look forward to the day on which He will come again.

The readings for these weeks strike many notes, working backwards through time, as it were. We begin today with a warning about the final Judgment, for the next two weekends we will hear about John the Baptist and, on the final Sunday of Advent, we will hear about the moment of the Incarnation.

Advent images that come to mind focus on the Annunciation and Visitation, the specific advent of the Child Jesus. And we will look at them when we get there. But, for this first week of Advent let’s look at images of the Last Judgment.

Gislebertus, Last Judgment
Romanesque (French), 1130-1135
Autun, Cathedral of St. Lazare

The Last Judgment has been a favorite topic for much of the history of western art. It was the image of choice for the tympanum (space between the top of the door and the top of an archway) in many Romanesque and Gothic churches during the Middle Ages. One of the most famous and well-known examples is the tympanum from the Cathedral of St. Lazare at Autun, made between 1130 and 1135. Most unusually for a work of medieval sculpture, the tympanum is signed by the sculptor “Gislebertus hoc fecit” (Gilbert made this). Gislebertus must have been highly respected to be allowed to name himself.

The lively figures surrounding the large figure of Christ in glory tell the story of the last day, when the dead are raised and divided into those who are saved and those who are damned. 

Among the scenes are those of the interaction between the Archangel Michael and the Devil, as Michael weighs souls in a balance.

Gislebertus, Last Judgment
Detail:  Weighing of Souls
The Devil tries hard to cheat, and gain more souls for himself.

He pulls down on the balance, even as the claws on his feet horrifically grab a frightened soul in the lintel below by the head and begin to drag it toward hell.

Gislebertus, Last Judgment
Detail: Soul Dragged to Hell
Some of these same details appear three hundred years later in the great Last Judgment polyptych (multi-paneled painting) painted by Rogier van der Weyden for the Hotel-Dieu at Baune in Burgundy.
The Hotel-Dieu was built from 1443-1452 by Nicolas Rolin, Chancellor of the Duchy of Burgundy under Duke Philip the Fair, as a refuge for the sick poor (more like what we would today call a hopice than a modern hospital) during the unsettled century that saw the Hundred Years War and continuing outbreaks of the Black Death.
Rogier van der Weyden, Last Judgment Polyptych
Netherlandish, 1446-1452
Beaune, Hotel Dieu
Here Michael’s weighing of souls takes center stage, directly beneath Christ. As the heavenly court hover above them, the souls of the dead emerge from their graves to face either an angelic welcome into heaven (at the left) or a horrifying descent into hell (at the right).

Interesting as these images are, however, they can be said to represent the Judgment already in progress. For an image that can illustrate this Sunday’s warning to ‘Watch!” is the great image of the Last Judgment that Michelangelo produced for the end wall of the Sistine Chapel (1536 - 1541), thirty years after his work on the Sistine ceiling.
Michelangelo Buonarotti, Last Judgment
Italian, 1536-1541
Vatican City, Sistine Chapel

In its dynamic image we see, as it were, the Last Judgment at the moment “when the lord of the house is coming” (Mark 13:35). There is an immediacy and an urgency as Christ breaks once more into the terrestrial world, the dead rise from their graves and the judgment takes place. Those who are to be saved are assisted by angels and the blessed to reach heaven, while angels and the blessed resist those who are damned but are trying to escape their punishment.
Michelangelo, Last Judgment

To the right of center is a figure whose horror at being pulled down to hell is reminiscent of the little soul from Autun whose head was gripped by the Devil’s claws.

Images of the Last Judgment seem to have tapered off after about 1600, perhaps replaced by a greater emphasis on the particular judgment that follows each individual death than with the general judgment of the final days. But, at Advent each year, the Church reminds us of that still-to-come last act in salvation history and of its byword “Watch!”

© M. Duffy, 2011