Art and the Apocalypse

by Elizabeth Lev, appearing in Volume 38

​From the earliest mosaics gracing church apses, images of the apocalypse have played an essential role in the history of Christian art. The visual evocation of the end of the world offered direction and perspective in times of plague, natural disaster, spiritual confusion, and physical danger. Anonymous artisans portrayed symbols of the Book of Revelation, itinerant sculptors carved the end of the world in church portals, while Michelangelo and a host of Renaissance painters left numerous panels and frescoes of the return of Christ as Judge.

But this rich font of artistic inspiration dried up abruptly in the eighteenth century. The humanistic optimism of the Enlightenment had no place for an afterlife where one answered for one’s actions. The thinkers of the age believed that human beings were capable of governing a society with reason as their only guide.

The history of the last century, however, seems to suggest what an illusion that was. As the twenty-first century sets forth in the midst of panic, pandemic, violence, and unrest—it might be time to bring back the Last Judgment in art.

How the Last Judgment Developed

The earliest extant Christian mosaic can be identified in the apse of Santa Pudenziana (385) in Rome, and features the four creatures of Revelation. From that precocious start, they became a staple in Roman sanctuary décor by the seventh century.

With the new millennium and the age of the crusades, an important shift saw a transformation from apocalyptic symbols to scenes describing judgment. In Europe and Northern Italy, carved reliefs of Christ the Judge adorned tympana (the usually rounded space with decorations over a door or window), greeting pilgrims and parishioners alike with a reminder that there was something greater beyond this world.

Medieval Italy moved the Last Judgment scenes indoors, favoring the contrafacciata (the inner wall of the church’s façade) of its churches. A broad expanse of wall offered plenty of space for artistic interpretations of the end of the world. Filled with figures and events, these scenes were a kind of painterly polyphony, a visual version of a multi-voiced Dies irae. After the liturgical pronouncement of Ite, missa est, churchgoers would head out into the world with the warning that there was no guarantee that they would return next week and that they could be called to account at any moment.

As works intended for the faithful, most Last Judgments were didactic, addressing specific vices of the age or the region, and emphasizing mercy. (It is a cynical modern view that they were designed to enable the Church to rule by fear.) The scenes of the suffering of the damned were closest to the viewer’s eye level, but this encouraged the faithful to look away from the earthly world and raise their eyes to heaven.

A Prototype

One of the earliest extant versions of the Italian Last Judgment type was produced in Rome, probably around 1150, for the Oratory of San Gregorio Nazianzeno. It bears the hallmarks of a prototype, a first foray into a new style of iconography that would be codified in time.

Its shape is remarkably atypical: a perfect circle placed atop a rectangular predella. Future Last Judgments would be mostly executed in fresco and cover the entire expanse of the wall and would be horseshoe-shaped, double- arched, or rectangular. This version, produced in tempera on wood panel, seems intended to evoke the orb of the heavens or a full circle from origin to completion.

The painters of this piece even signed the work, unusual in and of itself in the twelfth century, evidently proud of their efforts. Their Last Judgment probably rested on the lintel of the portal, tilted slightly towards the viewer, who would feel the imminent arrival of the Final Day as he or she exited the sacred space.

As a work directed to the faithful, the panel is organized into several registers (horizontal bands that delineate the individual elements of the image.) Each is helpfully labeled so as to avoid misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

The apex of the work reveals Christ as Judge, flanked by angels. He is seated, enclosed in another circle, and raises his cross and the orb of the world. He looks straight out towards the viewer, and recalls the well-known Pantocrater iconography, derived from the many years of Byzantine influence over Roman art. Christ appears to engage each viewer personally, despite his stiff and regal pose.

Directly below the Pantocrator, Jesus appears again as the resurrected Christ, displaying the wounds of his salvific sacrifice. Instruments of his passion are arranged neatly on the altar: spear, sponge, nails, etc. These will become a constant in Last Judgment imagery: given the opportunity to judge God, humanity scourged, mocked, and crucified him; thus, the beholder is incited to pray to not suffer the same condemnation.

The apostles, seated around Christ, remain still. Their role is to encourage us to witness Jesus’ triumph over death. So far, this iconography is fairly typical—close in spirit, if not style, to the transalpine tympana.

Martyrdom and Mercy

The anomalies appear in the central register. On the left, a group of people cluster behind a tall figure with a high forehead and pointed beard—the iconographic traits of Saint Paul. Leading the charge is a semi-nude figure holding a cross, Dismas, the Good Thief, redeemed at the last moment by Christ himself. This is the call to conversion: anytime, anywhere, even at the final instant. Saint Paul, as late-convert extraordinaire, points to Dismas, the original example of mercy at the point of death, in a proclamation of hope in salvation for all.

The Blessed Virgin makes her first appearance in this scene, standing before Dismas, looking upwards, while pointing to a little band of figures clutching palm branches. These are the martyrs, led by Saint Stephen, the first to die for Christ. The martyrs hold a privileged position in the composition, directly under Jesus, as if on an express elevator to heaven.

Martyrdom, however, is not the only path to heaven. The work illustrates another route—a novel element in this iconography. The central register concludes with images of the acts of mercy: feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned, and clothing the naked. The core of the entire panel is an invitation to the faithful to strive for heaven through conversion, witness, and charity.

The Roman roots of the artists are evident in the next register, where two female figures recline on mythological creatures. They represent the sea and earth rendering up the bodies of the dead. Scattered bones regurgitated by beasts serve as a gruesome reminder of the importance of Christian burial, a need met by the proto-lay confraternities that would arise in this era.

Angels on the right blow trumpets, awakening the dead. The foot of the angel on the far right slips out of the confines of the frame. This visual disruption is meant to involve the viewer, a reminder that these events are not limited to these miniscule painted characters since the day of judgment will come for all.

Feminine Middle Ages

The predella would have been closest to the viewer and the most visible part of the work. In a curveball to the modern stereotype of the “patriarchal Middle Ages,” it places women at the forefront of this celestial chorus with a few male figures peeking in from the background.

Nicola and Giovanni have depicted a strikingly feminine heaven. Abbess Costanza and sister Benedetta, patrons of the work, stand front and center. Above them two female saints flank the Blessed Virgin, Queen of Heaven, in a familiar pose of intercessory prayer.

The condemned occupy the larger part of the predella space, as angels inflict somewhat unimaginative punishments. This panel, painted before the Black Plague that claimed the lives of one third of the population of Europe, and before Dante’s vivid imagery of the Inferno, presents a matter-of-fact look at the condemned—murderers, perjurers, usurers, prostitutes. It includes the interesting addition of a little group of women, labeled “mulieres qui in ecclesia loquantur”—”women who talk in church,” perhaps a pet peeve of the abbess and certainly an infraction of Saint Paul’s well-known prohibition, but a delightful human touch to the apocalyptic scene.

The Faithful’s Experience

Last Judgments framed the faithful’s ecclesiastical experience. The urgency of preparation for the moment when one would be weighed and measured before the Lord was set before the faithful at every turn, in entrances, exits, domes, or chapels.

Whether for quiet contemplation in a private chapel, as an incentive to face the world with the soul turned heavenward, or, as in the case of Michelangelo’s famous version in the Sistine Chapel, to underscore accountability, these images helped Christians to contextualize their turbulent times. They taught Christians to face wars, natural disasters, or plagues with hearts and minds attuned to eternity.

The Enlightenment successfully eradicated these artistic visions from church decoration, and with a few unfortunate exceptions, they are seldom seen today. But as the modern age wrestles with fears of loss, sickness, helplessness, and death, images of the honest accounting that all must ultimately make are due for a comeback.