The Last Judgement. Say what? If you have visited the great cathedrals and churches of Europe, you will have seen paintings of the Last Judgement, such as the ones shown here – in the Cathedral of Saint Cecilia in Albi and in the chapel of the Hotel Dieu in Beaune, France, the latter, a masterpiece of Flemish painter, Rogier van der Weyden.
Most of us who visit these places, gaze upon these magnificent works of art for a few minutes and proceed further without much thought. However, for centuries, people who viewed these paintings – who could not avoid looking at these paintings, especially the one in the cathedral in Albi because it’s just so BIG – probably trembled in their seats, considering that maybe, just maybe, they would be one of the damned, one of those who, upon being weighed by St. Michael the Archangel, would be found desperately wanting and sent straight into hell where demons would torture them for all eternity.
But wait. We moderns aren’t supposed to believe in these medieval superstitions, right? Even the Catholic Church these days rarely talks about damnation, about souls being weighed, about the Last Judgement . . . because well, it’s just so judgemental and besides, modern Catholic priests have more important things to talk about, such as climate change, poverty in the Third World, migrants and LGBTQ.
Our ancestors looked upon the Last Judgement and the events preceding it – illness and death – as constant companions. The Hotel Dieu in Beaune, France was a hospital until the 1950s. The construction of the Hotel Dieu was commissioned in 1443 by a charitable nobleman named Nicholas Rolin and his wife, Guigone de Salins. Rolin and his wife commissioned the Flemish painter, Rogier van der Weyden, to paint a polyptych of the Last Judgement, which hung in the chapel next to the beds where the sick were attended to by nuns. In this way, the dying could look upon the Last Judgement polyptych and seek penance for their sins before expiring. On one side of the polyptych were people who had died in sanctifying grace making their way to heaven, to live out the rest of eternity in the company of Our Lord, Our Lady, all of the saints and the angels; on the other side were those who committed mortal sins and never repented, consigned to eternal suffering in hell with the worst of demons. Imagine yourself lying on one of these beds, dying, looking at the Last Judgement.
In the 1400s, people in France lived very close to death. In addition to frequent outbreaks of the plague, people’s lives were at the mercy of bandits and marauding mercenaries, childhood diseases, death in childbirth, etc. Thinking about the Four Last Things – death, judgement, heaven and hell – was one of the most normal things to do.
Today, we live as if death is something that happens to someone else. It’s an illusion. Anything can happen any time. A traffic accident, a bike crash, slipping on your bath tub, a heart attack, cancer . . . Are you sure there won’t be any final reckoning for your deeds on earth? Are you really sure?
The Four Last Things – death, judgement, heaven and hell – used to be a regular feature in Catholic sermons. Priests would conjure up the most awful scenes of hell because they knew that this was one of the better ways of getting people to pay attention and to amend their lives. Alas, today, many of our priests prefer to talk about anything BUT the Four Last Things, even though a priest’s primary task is to SAVE SOULS.
So if your parish priest spends November talking about anything but the Four Last Things, you need to look upon these paintings and ask yourself: which side do you think you are going to be in these paintings – the right side or the wrong side? Think of the Last Judgement, go to Confession regularly, and examine your conscience every night before you go to sleep, say a prayer of penance. You never know.