The Art of Angels - The Last Judgment

Rogier van der Weyden:The Last Judgment Polyptych. Musée de l'Hôtel-Dieu, Beaune

The images in Last Judgment art are based on the Gospel of Matthew, and the book of Revelation:

'When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matthew ch 25:v31–36)

After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter. And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald. And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold. And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices: and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.
  (Revelation ch 4 v1 - 5)

  'Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.' (Revelation ch 20:11–12)

  The last judgment is a familiar scene in art. It often features in medieval churches, usually on the west wall or over the doorway, as a warning to the congregation. As I have mentioned elsewhere, hellish scenes no longer have the desired effect , often looking comic rather than terrifying to a modern audience.
  Van der Weyden's polyptych shows most of the key elements of Last Judgment images. At the bottom, dead souls, reunited with their bodies, are emerging from the ground. Christ is seated on a rainbow as mentioned in Revelation. To the left (Christ's right) the saved are being ushered through a grand gothic gateway. To Christ's left the damned are on their way to Hell. On either side of Christ are various figures: apostles, saints, popes, bishops, kings. The Virgin and John the Baptist are interceding on behalf of souls. Above - an unusual feature in Last Judgement images - angels are carrying the instruments of the passion.

Here's a larger version of the centre section. Next to Christ are symbols of salvation, a lily, and damnation, a flaming sword. Below Him, Archangel Michael is weighing souls with his scales. Although Michael is mentioned in Revelation when he defeats Satan (Bk 12 v 7-9) the tradition of him weighing souls does not come from scripture, and it is suggested that the idea comes from a much earlier, pre-Christian tradition, perhaps that of  Horus and Anubis from the Egyptian book of the Dead. The trumpeting angels on either side of Michael do have Biblical authority.  Revelation chapter 8 describes the effects of the sound of the trumpets of the seven angels, and extraordinarily vivid passage. Van der Weyden only has room for four of the angels.  Gabriel is sometimes associated with this tradition.



Why a rainbow?

The rainbow appears in Genesis, once the flood is over, and is God's symbol of the covenant between him and all living things: 

And God said, this is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.  (ch 9 v 12 – 16)

Scholars may argue whether the rainbow in Revelation is a direct reference to Genesis, but it is certainly an appropriate one. In Genesis life on Earth starts again: in the Last Judgment humanity rises from the dead.

Some more images. The last judgement narrative is particularly suited to the tryptych format, as in Han's Memling's version. Was he aware of Van der Weyden's polyptych? There are many correspondences.

Muzeum Narodowe, Gdansk

Giotto's west wall of the Scrovegni chapel is a very graphic version, particularly on the side of the damned.

Finally, a favourite: the version by Fra Angelico in San Marco, Florence.
On to Page 2:  Dooms

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