Empirical evidence suggests a single punch in the face drives a point better than two hours of moralizing talk. No surprise then that fear has been seen as the most efficient motivational tool throughout human history. This is why the Apocalypse has been the ultimate religious argument for staying morally straight, and paintings featuring the Last Judgment have been used to deliver the much-needed wallop.
Yet, a good Last Judgment painting is not meant to give its observers a thrashing, but to send them reeling with thoughts and ideas. From my previous post, we know that this triptych by Hans Memling was pushing a 15th-century viewer to reconsider his racist attitudes to black people. In that post, I also promised to show you some exciting details of this work.
Read on, I am illustrating my lighthearted account of the Apocalypse with details from Memling’s work. I also use a few other good artists to enhance Apocalyptic context. But before we go into the entertaining detail, there’s one fundamental criterion of quality of a Last Judgment painting that we need to understand.
WHY IS THE LAST JUDGMENT DIFFICULT TO TACKLE?
A good Last Judgment painting must project both HOPE and FEAR, with a very fine balance between the two. Too much Hope may convince observers Hell is reserved for serial mortal sin perpetrators only, so it is OK to shop-lift an occasional candy or covet their neighbour’s donkey (brush up your knowledge of the Ten Commandments, if you wonder how a donkey got here). Overdo Hell, and a man who for years has been trying not to peek at his neighbour’s wife getting undressed for the night, may decide he’d end up in Hell anyway just for his dirty thoughts, and would cross the street to an out-and-out adultery, donkey coveting, and daily Big Macs’. Hieronymus Bosch believed the more Hell the better, so his Last Judgment is 90% Hell, with Paradise shown as Mankind’s embezzled chance:
What’s the point of being nice to people, if the future is Hell anyway?
So, Bosch’s is a great comic book, but not a convincing Apocalypse.
The Orthodox branch of Christianity, thriving in countries that favour awe of authorities and massive state bureaucracy, came up with the simple and obvious answer: the idea of facing the judge should be enough. So, the central image is that of Christ presiding over the hearing of your case. Standing in front of this icon makes you wonder if what happened on that Moscow business trip has ever intended to safely stay there; and whether your feeling sorry has any relevance to the case.
Catholics needed a softer approach that would somehow reflect the idea of free will and individual responsibility. A Catholic Last Judgment was showing two possible outcomes of the observer’s today’s actions and laid responsibility for those actions on the observer.
Can you see the problem with this Last Judgment? It is about the process, not the result. It puts the visual emphasis on the Jury, instead of giving prominence to the alternative outcomes. This is a work by Rogier van der Wayden, the mentor of Hans Memling; art historians found in it numerous items that Memling borrowed for his own painting (like the golden orb beneath Christ’s feet). He might have borrowed much, but he did something very different. Hell and Paradise take 50% of space, with the Judgment scene occupying the rest 50%. His painting is equally about YOU making decisions today and GOD deciding your fate at a later, or rather on the last, date. Now that we understand why Memling’s Last Judgment is basically great, let’s go into its details.
THE LIGHTHEARTED VIEW OF APOCALYPSE
The Apocalyptic modus operandi is pretty simple.
1. Everyone dies.
The Four Horsemen of Apocalypse make sure that your timely death happens in one of the four most ghastly ways possible. The Church insists the Horsemen need to be treated as metaphors, and that it is highly unlikely any old-fashioned arrows would be fired during the Apocalypse. Yet, an artist can hardly resist the temptation to show the intention to kill by painting a drawn bow:
While the metaphors of War, Hunger or Pestilence are easily applicable to very real nuclear annihilation, famine caused by overpopulation and kids not washing their hands because parents are unable to smack their bottoms anymore, the idea of the Holy Lamb breaking the four seals on the Book of Life (with each seal broken one of the four Horsemen appears) is a bit of a puzzle.
2. Everyone resurrects.
New Zombie films compete against all the previous Zombie flicks in making the scene when the dead crawl out of their graves the ugliest ever. It is not meant to happen like this. Prisoners get dressed well for sentencing at court, right? Most artists believed people would rise up with new bodies given to them already.
Hans Memling was no exception.
I even suspect he was taking secret pleasure in this perfect excuse to indulge himself in painting nudes of both sexes.
This resurrected woman has not only been given a beautiful body, but elaborate hair styling as well. She flings up her right hand to protect the hair dressing masterpiece from the oncoming demons (and, possibly, her hearing from those mind-blowing Apocalyptic trumpets of the angels, as well). She’s just been raised from the dead, but she positions her body in a way that implies she is aware of being looked at. Do you think she’d go to Hell for this?
Paul Gauguin was an admirer of Hans Memling. There’s something in Gauguin’s line and use of fields of colour that unites him with the German Renaissance artist:
Above the reclining nude, there’s a lady who is stretching her limbs. “If I am going to be judged, I don’t want cramps to get in the way”:
Some 30 years later (ca.1501), Luca Signorelli, an Italian artist, decided to elaborate on the body dispensation process to make the illogically miraculous at least marginally realistic:
3. The resurrected form a queue to have their souls weighed.
While people stand queuing, demons, because of their devilish nature and kleptomaniac tendencies, can’t help scheming and stealing souls yet to be weighed, but traffic management angels do their best to maintain order and scare away the unruly monsters.
The positive side-effect of this commotion is that traffic wardens go to Paradise without much soul-weighting: they are getting enough curses in the course of their job to pay off almost any mortal sin.
Unlike traffic wardens, butterfly enthusiasts are bound to suffer. I don’t know why, but the wings of this demon speak volumes of the apparent butterfly damnation:
4. Each soul is weighed by Archangel Michael, and is judged by Jesus, flanked by his mother and St. John, who beg Christ to be merciful.
There are the Apostles sitting around as well, but they don’t seem to have any particular role, save for acting as a focus group endorsing a TV programme.
Note the golden sphere beneath Christ’s feet: it symbolises the Earth but reflects both the towers of Paradise and the pits of Hell.
If the good deeds weigh more than the bad, the souls go to Paradise; demons take the souls to Hell otherwise. There’s one minor inconvenience for the Paradise-bound: those who get to their religion’s version of Paradise, are by default assigned to the Hell’s version of all the alternative religions. It is also said that Buddhists would be levitating above the mess forming the phrase “We told you so” with their bodies.
An interesting detail is the use of peacock feathers (quite traditional at the time) in angels’ wings. Archangel Michael is especially endowed in this respect:
These feathers help us spot, among all the lesser devils; a fallen angel. He still got a feather sticking out of his blackened body, poor sod:
Even in Hell, there’s Hope
Hell lacks interior design, except for a few boiling tubs here and there; doesn’t have basic hygiene, dental care or the Internet. It is also eternal. No hope. Yet, Memling did the unthinkable. One of his angels, while blowing a trumpet, is hovering just at the top of the Hell part of the painting, looking down at the damned. Why would an angel be interested in them, when there’s so much more gratifying things to watch just right in front of him (or her)? This angel is on a mission. The mission of the last resort. Unseen by any of the damned, a glimpse of hope exists even in Hell.
Paradise: Costume Party
Paradise has crystal stairs leading to it, free live music performances, everyone seems to have at least one book in their hands, and people are given fashionable clothes to wear.
No Shoes policy must be observed at all times, for the Union of Celestial Cleaners went on strike until the decision to pave Paradise with clouds is revoked. It is an eternal strike, for saints fail to negotiate anything with trade unions: saints can’t corrupt union leaders.
Note that Memling; while showing Hell in graphic detail, is hesitant to promise delights. He shows the entrance only, the welcome reception, with Paradise itself indicated by the golden atmosphere behind the gates.
We all suffer in more or less the same way, but when it comes to getting a kick out of life, we tend to become very individualistic.
I have never been to Gdansk, in Poland, where this painting is permanently exhibited. This artwork can be the one and only reason to make a visit there worthwhile, that is, unless you love amber: the city is also the amber capital of Poland.