Paintings first appeal to our sense of sight. Thus, they stimulate emotions, provoke intellectual reflection and move the spirit. This is also the case with the famous eschatological triptych by the Bruges master of religious paintings. How much tension here between light and darkness, how many intense and contrasting colors, mysterious reflections from the invisible reality! It is impossible to remain indifferent while standing in front of the dramatic altar, inviting us to the spectacle of the end of the world. The great central stage depicts the last day of the cosmos and on the open wings you can peep at what awaits us in the final future – open heavens and hellish depths. A fascinating spectacle!
However, I would like to suggest a slightly different reading of this masterpiece of the art of painting. It may be intriguing to try to hear Memling’s painting. So let’s first try to focus on the sounds present in this dramatic performance. The brilliant painter consciously saturated his prophetic vision with sounds depicted by detailed painted musical instruments, but also mouths open in the act of singing or screaming full of emotion. It would also be interesting to hear the sounds coming out of the infernal abysses full of dynamic chaos.
Let’s treat this phonetic interpretive key as a kind of overture to the symbolic, multiform symphony of theological meanings hidden in “The Last Judgment” by the master once described as: Fra Angelico of the North.
Let’s start with the central scene depicting the last day of the world. Actually, it is not clear what time of day is immortalized here. The dark sky seems to suggest the time after dark. But just above the horizon shines a strip of mysterious light, as if the morning aurora. Such phenomena are seen only in the skies of the northern lands. Probably in Bruges (where the altar was created) rather than in Florence (where it was supposed to go). This is the season of tranquility, enveloping everything in silence.
And then suddenly, above the idyllic line of earthly nature we hear the shrill sound of trumpets! Three angels clad in colorful, bright gowns are blowing with all their might on long tin instruments. The trumpeters’ puffed-out cheeks and the effect their eschatological concert has can attest to the strength of the sound. Behold, at the signal of the angelic trio, all those who have hitherto rested in mortal sleep in their graves are awakened. Some are terrified by the noise, others are confused by the mixture of sounds, others are busy fighting to save themselves from eternal damnation in hell. Such shrill sirens are sometimes used in lighthouses when dense fog prevents the warnings sent out by a streak of light. It gets bogged down in the gray milk covering the world. Only a powerful sound signal can arrive as a warning. I myself once experienced the shock of surprise at the unearthly roar tearing through the air at the end of the world – that is, at Spain’s Cape Finisterra located by the ocean, a day’s walk from the tomb of St. James the Apostle. The first image that stood before my eyes at the time was a vision of the final judgment, to which angelic trombones call.
SOUNDS OF HELL
A fourth angel is hovering over the terrible abyss full of fire. He, too, blows a long trumpet. Here, however, a different music can be guessed. It is not a signal for resurrection. This messenger of heaven is not leaning over a field dotted with graves. He is there to trumpet dispassionately the irrevocability of the divine sentence of damnation for those who have been carried away to the valley of tears by terrible demons.
We can only guess at the shrillness of the screams coming out of the mouths of the unfortunate tortured, oppressed, terrorized in a dark ordeal where the only light is the sinister fire breathing from the depths. It looks horrifying even to us – today’s observers. We feel as if we are watching a massive terrorist attack and hearing its ominous sounds. Memling’s Inferno looks like an explosion in a coal mine, like an explosion in an underground ammunition depot. What a bang must accompany such a violent cataclysm! It is not even clear whether the characters in this dramatic scene hear the pathetic music played by the angel in the upper registers full of dark smoke and thick fumes of burning sulfur.
The figures of the damned struggle with the devil’s tormentors blended by Memling into the scheme of the seven deadly sins. One should not expect harmony of seven choirs here. On the contrary, the chaos of the cries of anger issued by those who sinned in anger echoes in the cramped canyon with no exit. They no longer have anyone to lash out at – so they scream out of helplessness. On the faces of the debauched, not only horror can be seen, but even sobs can be heard. Tears of sorrow pour down faces twisted with a grimace of suffering. At the very top of the pyramid of pain, Satan pushes the repentant debauchee down with fury, opening wide his animal mouth toward the trumpeting angel. This fierce battle for every soul roars all the way to the intense sounds of war.
All these means of expression are used with all the awareness of their pathetic overtones in the service of the message about the irrevocability of the judgments of God’s Supreme Court.
However, let’s leave the right wing of the triptych and turn our attention to the opposite side – the realm of heavenly tranquility and harmonious music. Here an angelic concert takes place for those who enter the gates of paradise. On the crystal steps resting on the rocky edge of our earthly carcass walk towards the Gothic portal of the Civitas Dei chosen to live in splendor. The golden brightness shining in the depths can be seen behind the richly carved portal. And above it – the angelic choirs and the great orchestra of the heavenly kingdom. The composition of the winged instrumentalists is impressive. The artist has detailed and very precisely painted and placed in the hands of the angels as many as nine different instruments from the period. In addition to trumpets, there are zithers, flutes, trombones, bells and also a harp, lute, fiddle and portative. It’s unclear whether used together they would produce a harmonious effect in a real sound space. But each individually has a symbolic meaning in this iconographic rebus. The medieval fiddle, for example, was interpreted because of the meeting of bow and string as the coexistence of two elements: divine dynamism and human readiness to accept the Creator’s graciousness. Later, another symbolic interpretation emerged: masculine activity in the encounter with feminine sensitivity. And the portative used in liturgical music was understood as an image of the Church, in which the faithful are like individual but harmonized pipes. And it was this harmony referred to in Latin as consonantia that was the ideal of consonance with the will of God and the order of the cosmos. It (and the entire art of music) was attributed with healing properties. After all, music therapy was already used by the young David, soothing Saul’s frayed nerves by playing the harp.
Music was understood as mathematics, or the queen of the sciences. Its logical construction explained the created world, referring to the divine Logos or intention, design, meaning. The music of the celestial spheres composed by God sounds constantly in the cosmos. Only we don’t hear it anymore, because we have become accustomed to its sound produced by the rotating domes of the crystal bowls on which the stars and planets are set. This is how the great philosopher and theologian of antiquity – Augustine of Hippo – explained this sonic phenomenon. All perfect music is nothing but a reproduction of this divine harmony. Hence the paintings of the old masters featured instruments in the hands of angelic messengers. Memling was not at all isolated in this regard. Such masters as Stefan Lochner, Rogier van der Weyden and Piero da la Francesca painted bagpipes, flutes or lutes in scenes of the Last Judgment or depictions of Christmas. Personifications of the tones of Gregorian chant were placed on the capitals of columns in the famous Abbey of Cluny. And at the entrance to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, weary pilgrims were greeted by figures carved in hard stone of twenty-four Apocalyptic Old Men with instruments in their hands.
Similarly, in Memling’s painted heavenly portal, we see below the musical and singing angels figures from the Old Testament equipped with instruments. The latter are part of the carved portico of glory. It invites one to enter both spatially and sonically into the golden celestial sphere. How solemn and charming! Perhaps the origin of such an image of paradise was a medieval liturgical drama with stately choreography and mystical music?
In addition to this, it is also worth noting the vocal efforts of the angelic beings. There have even been attempts to conjecture the text and melody sung to welcome the solemn procession of the saved. Some have suggested that it is Psalm 150, the quintessential praise given to God.
In this way, this musical interpretive key makes it possible to decipher and explain some of the meanings hidden in Hans Memling’s painting. The triad of music – theology – painting appears here as a code of access to the symbolism of this fascinating vision of the end of times.
MYSTERIUM TREMENDUM ET FASCINOSUM
A mystery that inspires fear and awe – this is how religious scholars and theologians write about the SACRUM experience. This dramatic tension can be heard in the sounds encoded in Memling’s triptych. It also finds its artistic interpretation in the master’s many precisely painted symbols. Let’s look at the Savior’s immediate surroundings. Two opposite signs appear next to Jesus’ head: a lily and a sword. The flower of innocence is intended for those who have been declared justified. It is a reward for a virtuous life. In contrast, the shining blade of the sword is directed toward those punished for their sins. One could look for a trace of mercy in this sign, since the instrument of justice is heated to the color of embers and when it inflicts a wound it will at the same time heal it, stopping the flow of blood… But perhaps this is just a faint hope? Although the painter, while working on the vision of the court, probably softened its dramatic significance. This is evidenced by recent infrared studies of the sub-painting. They showed that on the original sketches the face of the condemned was much more terrified than in the final layer of painting.
Signs of hope and gentleness are also the instruments of the Lord’s passion held by angels flying at the very top against the golden backdrop of divine reality. Arma Christi is a very specific weapon of the Savior. Instead of cannons and maces, His heavenly armory holds the mementos of His martyrdom: the column of scourging, the cross, the crown of thorns, the hammer and the nails with which the torturers nailed Him to the beam. The presentation of this peculiar armament of the Victor of death, hell and Satan is a manifestation of the meekness and readiness for the redemptive sacrifice of the wounded Judge. The instrumentality of humanity’s redemption placed in such an important place in the painting seems to be a conscious compositional effort by either the author himself or his theological advisors. Indeed, the rich content of the triptych suggests collaboration with biblical scholars, who often provided theoretical support to artists in the creation of their painted, multi-voiced sacred scores.
Also, the presence of the college of twelve apostles next to Christ testifies to the forbearance of the Divine Arbiter. They sit by the Master as at the Last Supper. Immediately after its conclusion, almost all the disciples fled or denied Him. Yet now they accompany the Judge like righteous jurors. Here again, modern laboratory studies hint at a clue to the softening of the original severity. In the sketched version of the central scene of the triptych, the apostles were not on the rainbow of divine justice.
PSYCHOSTASIS AND PSYCHOMACHY
The struggle for the souls of the resurrected people is the main theme of the lower register of the central scene of Memling’s virtuoso composition. Here the first fiddle is played by Archangel Michael clad in golden armor and a refined cloak. His instrumentation is simple: a scale with two scarves and a processional crucifix held in his right hand like a spear. The motif of weighing souls has appeared in art since time immemorial. Already in ancient Egyptian paintings, Osiris used a scale to measure human justice. He, however, weighed a person’s heart by comparing it to the objective measure that was the ostrich feather – a symbol of truth. If the heart was too light – that is, it accumulated too little goodness – the sentence was condemnation. The same is true in Memnilng: it is the weight of the good deeds accumulated by the subjudice during his lifetime that determines his judgment. The downward-sloping scales are on the side of heaven. A man kneeling on it can be sure of eternal reward.
Interestingly, in a similar vision painted by Rogier van der Weyden, the situation is reversed. There the condemned man tilts the scales to his side. Apparently, in that version, it is about the gravity of sins and not virtues. And in fact, one might ask oneself about the objectivity of such a measure of eternal justice. Why is the weighing a comparison of two delinquents and not, as with Osiris: the human heart and an objective measure of truth? After all, it is possible to come across an exceptional villain on the other scale… Then even a moderately saintly partner in the comparative weighing process would benefit from an exceptional opportunity! There are more similar puzzles in the painting of the master of Bruges.
A separate issue is the identification of the people depicted in the painting. Are the dozens of nude figures portraits of real people? Such a portion of literal nakedness could be morally shocking to pious eyes. And yet, neither in the past, nor even more so today, a scene full of actors without clothes does not provoke or offend. Note that the bodies of the characters in this bold vision are as if unreal, the nudity is schematic. They should be read as portraits of souls rather than anatomical studies from nature. Although the artist made visible in them some lesions characteristic of his era or pathological anomalies.
What’s different is the faces! Here art historians are even looking for a specific personal affiliation. Based on the surviving iconography of the period, the thesis is that in the procession of the saved the artist portrayed representatives of the rather large Italian colony living in Bruges at the time. The most likely personal attribution concerns a man kneeling on a scales of scales tilted toward paradise. His face, painted on a metal foil pasted secondarily in place of the savior’s head, bears a resemblance to the face of Tommaso Portinari. At the time, he headed the Bruges branch of the Medici bank as successor to the painting’s founder, who was Angelo di Jacopo Tani. A portrait of the latter and his young wife can be found on the reverse of the triptych’s wings.
The painting was intended for the Medici church in Badia Fiesolana near Florence. Perhaps it was meant to alleviate the conflict between the rival Tommaso and Angelo. There is also a plausible version that such a costly work was intended as a votive offering to celebrate the founding of the family and the founder’s new position. Either way, Memling’s painting is not just a detached vision of theoretical eschatology, but a performance in which the actors of the final act of the history of the world are concrete people – each of us. So let’s try to listen to this extraordinary painting-symphony as if it were a concert about the final destinies of man.