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University of Basel

Fear. (01/2022)

Visions of the end-time.

Text: Christoph Dieffenbacher

Harrowing images of a divine judgment at the end of the world, as described in the New Testament, were commonplace during the Middle Ages. Yet, people at the time
did not live in constant fear of punishment for sin and everlasting damnation.

“The dead man before God,” Grandes Heures de Rohan, illumination, Paris ca. 1430.
“The dead man before God,” Grandes Heures de Rohan, illumination, Paris ca. 1430.

It was the worst disaster that medieval people could imagine. The Revelation of St John describes it in particularly vivid detail. In the Last Days, cities will be destroyed by earthquakes, the seas will turn to blood and be set ablaze, a third of humanity will perish, and Christ will return to earth with fire and brimstone. The Last Day is also a day of judgment: the dead will rise from their graves and be judged by Christ according to their deeds. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus separates the “righteous” from the “unrighteous.” The fate of the wicked is eternal punishment in hell, while the just can look forward to everlasting life in the heavenly kingdom.

The ideas of a final battle between good and evil and a punitive judgment by God at the end of history probably go back to the Assyrian and Babylonian empires and ancient Egypt. However, it is difficult to think of a culture where they were as popular as in the Middle Ages.

In medieval speculation about the end of the world, the dreaded Day of Judgment was envisaged not as an event far off in the future, but as something that could happen at any time, based on portents such as falling stars and people rising from the dead. Such fears became particularly acute during outbreaks of plague – in the 14th century, for example, when Europe lost a third of its population – and at times of war, when fears about the end of the world converged with fears of “the other.”

The damned and the saved

“Brutal violence, sickness and death were omnipresent during the Middle Ages,” says Aden Kumler, Professor of Early Art History at the University of Basel since 2020. She is looking at how medieval artists used depictions of the apocalypse to motivate the faithful to lead lives pleasing to God.

This was no easy task. How were artists to capture such a transformative event in images when it had not yet happened? How could the unknown be portrayed by means of the familiar? According to Kumler, most medieval depictions of the Last Judgment employed an iconographic schema inspired by the New Testament. The divine judge sits enthroned at the center, surrounded by angels and/or the evangelist symbols. To his left, we see the damned descending into hell; to his right, the saved are shown ascending to heaven.

This basic iconographic schema appears in a wide range of media, ranging from monumental sculptures of the Romanesque and Gothic periods to illuminated manuscripts and murals in the high and late Middle Ages as well as late medieval altarpieces. How fixed were the conventions specifying how the end of world had to look during the Middle Ages?

Alongside traditional iconographic elements that took shape during the Middle Ages, Kumler argues, there were definitely opportunities for artists to experiment: “It is similar to the way that in jazz there are certain standards that include scope for improvisation.”

This is evident in the Gallus portal in Basel cathedral, for example, as well as in the west portal of the cathedral of St Lazare in Autun, both of which date from the 12th century. Here, the saved are shown lining up obediently while the damned mill around in confusion..

Bloodthirsty scenes

It is an open question to what extent learned discussion of the Last Days reached the general population at all – there are no statistics on that, of course. As Kumler notes, for much of the medieval period most people lived in the countryside, traveled very little, and could not read or write. For example, the fear that the world would come to an end around the year 1000 seems to have been confined to scholars; the bulk of the population knew nothing about it. They were equally oblivious of the debates among theologians concerning judgment at the death of each individual and the great general judgment at the end of the world.

Nevertheless: “depictions of the apocalypse above the portals of Romanesque churches must have been quite shocking for a simple peasant,” Kumler suspects. These scenes are in fact often graphic and terrifying. Two giant hands reach down to grab a man’s head; rows of people tumble into a bottomless abyss. In another image, the damned are tortured by devils and dragon-like demons even as they fall. Such demonic creatures appear captured in stone in many Romanesque carved capitals.

Gifts, pilgrimages, indulgences

Fear of catastrophe and the end of the world probably affected people to varying degrees. No one could be sure that they had performed enough good works during their lifetime to save their soul from hell and purgatory. “For all the horror,” Kumler says, “the apocalyptic images also convey the message that you could prepare yourself for the Last Day and influence the judgment in your favor.”

Through compassionate deeds, such as giving food and clothing to the poor, going on pilgrimage, or paying for an indulgence, you could increase your chance of salvation and everlasting life in the hereafter. Admittedly, some of these measures were available only to a rich ruling elite and wealth and poverty were seen as divinely ordained by some medieval authorities.

Consequently, the state of fearful expectation that was encouraged to a greater or lesser extent by apocalyptic images also had its positive side, Kumler says. In the late Middle Ages, for example, works promoting the “ars moriendi” (“art of dying”) became popular. These taught people how to prepare for their own deaths and how to die well. “In this way, the fear of death could be cultivated to some extent.”

And in the Middle Ages it was even possible to imagine that, in the end, all people would be saved and hell would turn out to be empty: a radical idea for the time. Kumler likes to quote the writer Julian of Norwich, who, around the year 1400, reported that while suffering from a severe illness she heard Jesus speak the comforting words, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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