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By Eden Prime


In this room, I have chosen to look at the word ‘Panic’ through the subject of The Last Judgement, during which the Second Coming of Christ occurs, where God judges humanity for the final time. The subject is found in all Canonical gospels, particularly the apocalyptic sections of the Bible. Traditionally, The Last Judgement will occur after the dead are resurrected and a person’s soul is reunited with its own body. Christ will then come, along with all the angels, and each person’s relationship with God will be judged.

When choosing the artworks I have included in this room, I was focusing on the ways in which artists portrayed the contrast between the troubled and tormented souls of the Damned, versus the more serene emotions displayed by the Blessed. The panic depicted through the strenuous expressions of those destined for eternal punishment was a common aspect amongst the more traditional pieces. However, as time progresses, this theme gets portrayed in increasingly differing ways, as we will particularly see when looking at Kandinsky’s Last Judgement.

‘Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.’ Matt 7:13-14

‘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.’ (Rev 20:11–12)

Detail from 12th century mural from the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Chaldon

This mural, which sits on the west wall of the nave of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul at Chaldon, Surrey, dates to the 12th century, and depicts various iconographic subjects, particularly the Last Judgement, but also the Harrowing of Hell and the Ladder of Salvation. Red tempera is dominant throughout the mural and the piece is divided by a horizontal band. The upper half consists of the judgement and salvation, whereas the lower half consists of various demons and sinners. The tree of knowledge and the serpent can also be seen in the lower half, emphasising the sheer amount of sin in this section. The contrast between heaven and hell is ever present in this image, as the dignified blessed are queuing up to be assessed by Archangel Michael.

Giotto, Last Judgement in the Scrovegni chapel in Padua, 1306, fresco

The Scrovegni Chapel, located in Padua, Italy, contains a beautiful fresco cycle by Florentine painter Giotto, completed around 1306. The cycle was commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni, a Paduan moneylender, who can be seen in this piece, just below the centre, offering the chapel to the three Marys. In the centre of the fresco is Christ, sitting in an oval frame supported by angels. The apostles are depicted on either side of Jesus, each sat on their own throne. The cross below Christ, carried by two angels, essentially divides heaven from hell, of which the apostles and righteous members of society, who are surrounded by angels, contrast the harrowing images that make up the scene of hell on the lower right. The large blue figure in the centre, representing Satan, is surrounded by tortured souls. Large amounts of the imagery in this section were inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy (1308), of which the landscape of hell was described. The various punishments of hell reference the different kinds of sins that people committed. For example, usurers can be seen hung along with bags of money on the ropes of which they are hanging from. Judas, the disciple who betrayed Christ, can also be seen hanging just below the usurers. Dante also allegedly visited Giotto while he was painting the Scrovegni Chapel.

Hans Memling, Last Judgement, c. late 1460s, oil on panel

This triptych was completed by Hans Memling, a German painter, who moved to Flanders and followed a similar style to that of other Early Netherlandish painters, particularly his teacher, Roger van der Weyden. This Last Judgement was commissioned by Angelo Tani in 1465, who was head of the Bruges branch of the Medici bank. The central panel consists of Christ enthroned at the top, alongside the Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist and the Apostles. Similar to van Eyck’s depiction, Archangel Michael is also portrayed on earth, weighing the souls of those who have been raised from the dead. An overall feeling of uncertainty can be seen amongst the souls on earth, particularly the damned, who particularly show emotions of dismay, as they swing their arms in fear while being guided towards hell. This sense of frenzy is heightened in the right panel, as the damned are left to be tormented within this hostile environment. This setting is contrasted by the blissful scene shown in the left panel, as the righteous are guided through a delicately decorated archway, consisting of an architectural mix of Gothic and Romanesque, into heaven by St. Peter.

Jan van Eyck, Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych, 1430–40, oil on panel

Jan van Eyck, a master of hyper-realism and highly detailed, complex iconography, painted this diptych using oils from 1430-1440. Panic and grief seem to be concurrent themes in this piece, however, they are somewhat balanced by the solemn nature of the upper side of the right panel. The left panel depicts the Crucifixion, of which Christ’s followers can be seen grieving in the foreground, as well as soldiers and various other members of society, who occupy large amounts of the middle ground, with the three crucified men, Christ being at the centre, in the upper ground. Similar to the Crucifixion panel, the Last Judgement panel is divided into three parts horizontally – from top to bottom: heaven, earth and hell. In van Eyck’s depiction of heaven, Christ can be seen enthroned in the centre, whereas in the lower panel, the reprobates are left to suffer in hell. Within this depiction of hell, the artist has included possessed monsters, as well as devils that take the form of rats, snakes and pigs. Within the sinners, who fall headfirst into this pit of torture, van Eyck has also included damned nobleman and members of the clergy. The sheer level of panic within this scene is not only displayed through the distressed expressions of the figures, but also through the way in which the figures are surrounded by devilish creatures.

Michelangelo, The Last Judgement, 1536-1541, fresco

Perhaps one of the most famous depictions of the Last Judgement is this fresco by Michelangelo, which sits on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. This fresco was completed between 1536-1541, over 25 years after the completion of the Sistine ceiling. Within this piece there are over 300 figures, with Christ occupying the upper centre, surrounded by prominent Saints such as St. John the Baptist and St. Peter. Similar to traditional Last Judgement compositions, the saved can be seen ascending on the left, and the damned descending on the right. The way in which Michelangelo has arranged the figures and poses has been deemed to give feelings of agitation, reflecting the final moments before souls are either sent to Heaven or Hell. Unlike previous depictions, Satan is not shown, however instead, Minos, the first King of Crete, guides the damned towards Hell. Michelangelo’s interest in Greek mythology is also shown in the depiction of Charon, who transported souls to the Underworld in Classical mythology, as he ferries souls to the gates of hell. Upon completion, there were a number of religious objections due to the large amounts of nudity depicted in such a holy setting, and the fact that figures from pagan mythology were depicted alongside significant Christian figures. The energy and strain portrayed in Michelangelo’s figures I feel relates to this idea of horror and uncertainty before judgement, fitting nicely with the overall theme of this room.

'The twist into depth, the struggle to escape from the here and now of the picture plane, which had always distinguished Michelangelo from the Greeks, became the dominating rhythm of his later works. That colossal nightmare, the Last Judgment, is made up of such struggles. It is the most overpowering accumulation in all art of bodies in violent movement.' Kenneth Clark.

These are the words written on the gates of hell in Canto III of Dante's Inferno:

Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.
Justice the founder of my fabric mov'd:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, and primeval love.
Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
All hope abandon ye who enter here."

A contemporary take on Dante's Inferno

In 2010, EA (Electronic Arts) released Dante’s inferno, a video game based on the first canticle, Inferno, in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The player controls Dante from a third-person perspective, who in this case is a Templar knight, guided by Virgil as he fights through the nine Circles of Hell. The game received ok reviews but was praised for its of depictions hell throughout.

William Blake, A Vision of the Last Judgement, 1808, ink and watercolour

This pencil, pen and watercolour piece by William Blake was commissioned by the Countess of Egremont in 1807 and was inspired by Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. This can be seen in the way that Christ is depicted at the upper centre, with the those going to heaven ascending on the left, and the damned descending on the right. The large number of figures and varied poses and gestures also correlates to the iconic image by Michelangelo. Blake asserted that he experienced visions throughout his life, and in this case, he claimed to see the host of Heaven praising God. Within the notes of the piece, Blake wrote 'whenever any individual rejects error & embraces truth a Last Judgement passes upon that individual' reflecting how an individual becomes aware of the sins that they have committed, perhaps adding to the overall consternation that the person is experiencing.

John Martin, The Last Judgement, 1853, oil on canvas

Moving to the mid-19th century, this oil painting by John Martin is part of a triptych, with the other paintings being titled The Great Day of His Wrath and The Plains of Heaven, and are the last major works produced before the artist’s death. In the background, God can be seen enthroned in Heaven, with the four and twenty elders either side of him. The bottom half of the composition can generally be split in half, reflecting the differing moods, with the defeated armies of Satan falling into the bottomless pit on the right. Those who are righteous can be seen on the left side of the composition, on Mount Zion, awaiting judgement before God. Particularly amongst those who are damned are the wealthy, as a richly dressed woman, Herodias’s daughter, immediately grabs the attention of the viewer due to the grand nature of her appearance. On the other hand, amongst the saved, are the virtuous and philanthropic, including well known philosophers such as Thomas Moore and Isaac Newton. The ways in which feelings of panic are created in this piece differs from the traditional depictions of the Last Judgement, as in this instance, the harsh red and black landscape seems to overpower the tranquillity of the righteous, heightening those who have fallen away from God.

Viktor Vasnetsov, The Last Judgement, 1904, oil on canvas

This early 20th century execution of The Last Judgement is by Russian artist Viktor Vasnetsov, who throughout his career specialized in mythological and historical subjects. The piece was created for St. George’s cathedral in Gus-Khrustalny, commissioned by Yu. S. Nechayev-Maltsev, who had also funded the building of the cathedral. Christ can be seen enthroned at the top of the composition, with the Virgin Mary on the left and John the Baptist on the right. The figures of Adam and Eve can be seen flattened on the clouds below Christ, with Archangel Gabriel on the left, and Archangel Michael on the right. The resurrected can be seen rising below the righteous, due to the sounding of the trumpets blown by the two angels. The aspect that fascinates me the most in this piece, and I feel represents my theme quite fittingly, is the frightened figure in the centre of the lower part of the composition, stood in front of an angel who is holding a scroll and scales. This man, portrayed as rather distressed and concerned, as one would be before judgement, can be seen praying, hoping to be sent to eternal paradise. The figure of the Devil can be seen to the right, taunting the man, perhaps indicating his final destination. Clustered, tormented figures dominate the lower right side of the composition, in which the likes of Emperor Nero can be seen.

Wassily Kandinsky, The Last Judgement, 1912, oil on canvas

Wassily Kandinsky was one of the pioneers of abstract modern art, and through the combination of line and colour, created works as a means to transcend reality. The painting, which dates to 1912, was part of a series of paintings which related various Biblical themes, such as the Resurrection, Jonah and the Whale, and the Great Flood. In this work, Kandinsky attempted to evoke as strong emotions as written by John in the Book of Revelation. In the centre of the composition, an oddly formed black shape can be seen, surrounded by expressive strokes of orange and blue. Black lines are depicted throughout the piece, particularly in the centre, and colours of blue and yellow are also dominant. Although Kandinsky’s work is usually non-representational, he does allude to an angel holding a yellow trumpet, an iconic image of The Last Judgement, which can be seen on the right side of the composition. The story in Revelation combines both feelings of uncertainty and glory, which we have seen in the artworks above through the depiction of both panicked and tranquil souls. Kandinsky has evoked these feelings through the watercolour-like centre, creating a sense of transcendence. The varied lightness and darkness of the lines throughout perhaps demonstrates the complexity of a spiritual life, which will feature both ups and downs, and at times this notion of panic is often a reality within such a lifestyle due to the uncertainty of what lies ahead.

Richard Mudariki, The Last Judgement, 2013, acrylic on canvas

Richard Mudariki is an African artist, born in Zimbabwe, now working in South Africa, who created this piece in 2013. One can immediately see how the composition was inspired by Michelangelo’s Last Judgement; however, this piece is focused on politics. Nelson Mandela in this case has taken the position of Christ, and Queen Elizabeth II has replaced the Virgin Mary. Stephen Holmgren, an Episcopal priest, spoke about this piece in a homily on 2 December 2018. He first stated that during a funeral, a person’s body is brought into the Church feet first, so that on the day of Christ’s return, they are facing his direction towards the east. However, Priests are brought into the Church headfirst, and will face the people during Judgement. This, he argued, is on the premise that it ‘models our accountability, not only to our Lord but also to our people, whose spiritual care has been entrusted to us’. Therefore, when looking back at the painting, these figures, such as Archbishop Tutu, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela are facing towards us. However, figures such as bin Laden and Hitler also face us, but instead face downwards, taking the form of the damned. Thus finally, Holmgren states that these figures face us as a result of the ‘ministry’ that was entrusted to them.