Last Judgments

Last Judgments

Christian, Muslim, Orthodox, Buddhist, Hindu and Egyptian artists, among others, have been creating images of Last Judgments for many centuries. It is fascinating to compare not only the different faith’s interpretations of what the judgment day will look like but also the different interpretations of heaven and hell over the centuries. For example, the torments for those bound for hell often reflect the society’s punishments prevalent at the time. In some centuries, god is stern and vengeful, in others benevolent.

Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, Rome is probably the most viewed and commented on work of art dealing with the judgment day, and was inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. Michelangelo created this fresco along the whole length of the alter wall. His work is of the Italian Renaissance period, and was created around 1536-41. He depicted himself as St Bartholomew. The gates of hell, bottom left, appears to be the mouth of a cave.

Michaelangelo – Last Judgment. Sistine Chapel, Rome.

I was suprised to find an Armenian quarter in Isfahan, Iran, which was established in 1606. The Vank Cathedral is an Armenian Church, built in Safavid style, with an Islamic dome. The Cathedral was completed in 1664 and contains a medieval depiction of the Last Judgment, called “Heaven, earth and hell.” Note the gates of hell in this painting, lower left. Quite a number of last judgments gates of hell are monsters, with the damned being fed into its mouth.

Heaven, Earth and Hell, Vank Cathedral, Isfahan, Iran.

A Russian Orthodox Icon of the Last Judgment can be found in the Dormiton Cathedral, in the Kremlin in Moscow, and is dated around 1408. The torments of hell are more gentle than usual, although the beast on the left, and the numerous devil figures are menacing enough.

Last Judgment, Dormiton Cathedral, Kremlin, Moscow.

Driving through Southern France, I came across one of the oldest Last Judgments I have seen. I was visiting Conques, which was a major stop on the St-Jacques de Compostela Pilgrimage route from Puy En Velay.

The Church of Sainte-Foy (1050-1130CE) has a stone carved relief on the tympanum of the Judgment day. God is depicted in the centre, and by the look of the torments of hell, he was not a benevolent god.

Angkor Wat in Cambodia is a Buddhist temple complex, originally built as a Hindu Temple. The Judgment by Yama is a 12th Century bas relief, and is a 60 metre long panel dedicated to the Judgment of Yama. Yama, in Buddhist mythology is a wrathful god, and is based on Yama of the Hindu Veda.

The panel is in two tiers depicting heaven and hell. There are 37 heavens and 32 hells. Each level of hell contains a spot where those not good enough for the first level get tipped down to the next, and so on. It is very difficult to photograph, so I only have a couple of images of the detail.

I loved the religious art in the Ethiopian Orthordox Churches, and was very pleased to find a Last Judgment in St Georges Cathedral, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was created by Maitre Afewerk Tekle in 1958.

When visiting the Reza Abbasi Museum in Teheran, I came across a late 19th century Muslim last judgment, by Mohammed Modabber. Titled “Day of the last Judgment” it has a monster on either side at the foot of the painting. It seems that the one at the right would be the gates of hell, as tormented souls are entering the mouth of that monster.

Day of the Last Judgment by Mohammad Modabber, Reza Abbasi Museum, Teheran, Iran.

When visiting tombs in Egypt, I was always drawn to images of the weighing of the heart ceremonies. The Ancient Egyptians had a complex journey after death. The heart was kept in the body so that it could travel with the deceased to the underworld. The deceased finally reaches the Hall of Final judgment. The final part of the judgment was the ceremony where Anubis the god of the dead weighed the heart, which contained a record of the deceased’s actions in life. The heart was weighed against the feather of the Goddess Ma’at. Souls heavier than the feather would be devoured by Ammut. Those with lighter souls would ascend to a heavenly existence. Ammut’s mouth could be compared to the depictions of monster’s mouths in various christian images.

I have not seen any one image which captures the entire journey. The most graphic images are those of the heart weighing ceremony.

Images of Hunefer’s Judgment.

On the journey to heaven, the dead sailed in solar boats. If ancient Egyptian Last Judgment images included the entire day in one image, the journey through the underworld, the heart weighing ceremony, the 12 chambers of hell and the solar boats would all appear in one image rather than as a scroll, reading from left to right (as depicted in Books of the Dead).

My absolute all time favourite Last Judgment is Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly delights. That painting is the feature image above. It is a triptych oil painting, created between 1490 and 1510. The torments of hell are among the more hideous warnings to sinners of the fate that awaits them if they do not repent. Seeing this painting was the highlight of my visit to the Museo de Prado, in Madrid.

For the very best Gates of Hell, you need look no further than Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of the Gates of Hell, depicting a scene from the Inferno, from Dante’s Divine Comedy. The sculpture was begun in 1880 and took 37 years to complete.

Gates of Hell, Auguste Rodin – Musee Rodin, Paris.

The last judgments featured are but a very small example of the many last judgments I have seen. Wassily Kandinsky painted a last judgment in 1912. Unfortunately I have only seen reproductions, as the original is in private hands.

Wassily Kandinsky – Last Judgment.

Future travels will involve tracking down modern images of Last Judgments.