The Last Judgement: It’s All about Hope (despite what the medieval artists would have you believe)

Here’s an interesting point from Spe Salvi that’s worth a look.  Benedict’s final chapter is on “settings for learning and practicing hope” — a few aspects of Christian faith or life that can help us understand or, more importantly, grow in hope.  One of these settings is the Last Judgement — the final coming of Christ “to judge the living and dead.”

The Christian doctrine of the final judgement, Benedict teaches, is rooted in hope.  But this is not a connection that most Christians would readily make, and Benedict knows it. 

For most of us, if we think of the Day of Judgement at all, it is with some sense of anxiety or even fear.  (And then we go to Mass and listen to the priest pray that “we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”!)

Maybe we can’t be blamed, though.  The Pope suggests we consider the vast tradition of Christian art depicting the Last Judgement.  It doesn’t exactly convey the idea of it being something worth awaiting in joyful hope.  He writes:

In the arrangement of Christian sacred buildings, which were intended to make visible the historic and cosmic breadth of faith in Christ, it became customary to depict the Lord returning as a king—the symbol of hope—at the east end; while the west wall normally portrayed the Last Judgement as a symbol of our responsibility for our lives—a scene which followed and accompanied the faithful as they went out to resume their daily routine. As the iconography of the Last Judgement developed, however, more and more prominence was given to its ominous and frightening aspects, which obviously held more fascination for artists than the splendour of hope, often all too well concealed beneath the horrors. (SS, 41[my emphasis])

Hell, in other words, has captured the imagination of artists, and lent itself more often to dramatic imagery, than heaven has.

In Your Guide to Spe Salvi: Saved in Hope, I flesh out the Pope’s point by suggesting some specific examples of great works of art.  That book doesn’t include illustrations, though, so the wonder of the internet allows me to provide here the images that I couldn’t there.

Consider the famous Last Judgment frescoes of the medieval Italian master Luca Signorelli, which include both The Elect and The Damned (early 16th century).  Which did Signorelli paint more compellingly?

The Elect?

The Elect

Or The Damned?

Or better, take a close look at Hans Memling‘s Last Judgement Tryptich (15th century) below.  On the left you’ll see those who are saved being welcomed into the “glory” of heaven (how glorious does it look to you?), and on the right, the damned entering eternal damnation (ouch!).   













 Which side did you spent more time looking at?

And there’s Jan van Eck‘s Last Judgement (15th century): 

There’s Christ the Judge at the top center.  Immediately before him are the saved.  They look like they’re seated together ready to listen to a (yawn) lecture from the Lord.  The damned, on the other hand, below them, hang from the crotch of a monstrous skeleton!  What part of this work is going to leave a lasting impression??

The challenge, then, is to re-adjust our understanding of the Judgment that awaits us, so that the priest’s prayer that we’re “waiting in joyful hope for the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” bears some resemblance to reality!

Tomorrow, I’ll offer some thoughts on how we might make that happen.


One Response to “The Last Judgement: It’s All about Hope (despite what the medieval artists would have you believe)”

  1. Nancy C. Brown Says:

    Fascinating thoughts and visuals on art and hope.

    I was just reading Chesterton’s work The Ressurection of Rome and came upon this memorable quote about art, “All art is sensational, since it aims at producing some sort of sensation.”

    It seems to me as though the artists you show may have wanted to emphasize the negative, in order to help the folks get interested in conversion. Certainly the visions of hell produce in me a sensation…a sensation of “may I do whatever it takes not to go THERE!” so to me, they work 😉

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