Last Judgement Fresco in the Vatopedi Outer Narthex
The Last Judgement and Resurrection of the Dead, which encompass much of the east wall of the outer narthex of Vatopedi Monastery, were painted in the early eighteenth century.1 The Last Judgement is an important theme in Christian art. It combines a number of distinctive accounts from biblical sources such as Matthew 24 and passages from Revelations in a single image. The Last Judgment in Orthodox tradition depicts the redemption of humanity during the Second Coming of Christ. Since the earliest comprehensive Byzantine images of the Last Judgement were formulated in the eleventh century, the theme has become more complex.2 Particularly in the post-Byzantine period (after the fall of Constantinople in 1453), greater emphasis has been placed on the individual punishments of the damned and the representation of Satan in terms comparable to, and influenced by European art.3
All Byzantine images of the Last Judgment Iconography feature Christ seated toward the top of the composition, as the theme is Christ’s Judgment of the world. In front of Christ is Mary, (referred to as the Mother of God in Orthodox tradition), as well as John the Baptist whose purpose is to represent the human race. Together with Christ, they represent the Deësis (Greek term for “intercession”), and offer mediation on behalf of those who are to be judged. Also included in close proximity to the Judge are Adam and Eve, kneeling before him to represent all humanity from the beginning of the world. Twelve Apostles, seated with the elders on either side of Christ, complete the upper section of the Judgement.
Since the Last Judgment is predicated on the resurrection of the dead, the image itself purposefully conveys a sense of animation and commotion. In the lower right corner of this particular representation of the Last Judgement, the Four Doomed Kingdoms are depicted in the form of animals. These beasts in the form of a bear, four-headed, four-winged leopard, winged lion, and a creature with ten horns are said to have come up from the sea symbolizing the four doomed kingdoms from the prophecy of Daniel (Daniel 7 and 8). The Last Judgment Iconography is incredibly striking, and it presents a clear and comprehensive “catalogue” of intricate theological concepts that are connected to the theme of the Last Judgment.
The Last Judgment is not featured in the interior of the church, as this is a space where the life of Christ is celebrated and images depict the primary liturgical feasts associated with his life. Instead, images of the Last Judgment are commonly located in the narthex as the Second Coming was associated with the West, and the narthex is understood as a liminal or threshold space separating the mundane from the sacred and otherworldly. The monastery of Mileševa in Serbia has a very extensive Last Judgment in its narthex dating from the thirteenth century, and at the Chora Monastery (Kariye Djami) in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), the Parreclesion, which extends eastward from the narthex, features an expansive, early fourteenth image of the judgement on the eastern vault adjacent the Anastasis. In both cases burials are associated with the space thus making the Last Judgement particularly appropriate as a reminder of death and the afterlife.
Baschet, Jerome. Les justices de l’au-delà. Les représentations de l’enfer en France et en Italie (XIIe-Xve siècle), 2nd edition. Rome: Ecole Française de Rome, 2014.
Brenk, Beat. “Die Anfänge der byzantinischen Weltgerichtsdarstellung,” Byzantinische Zeitschrift. 57 (1964): 106-26.
Garidis, Miltiadis. Etudes sur le Jugement dernier post-byzantin du XVe à la fin du XIXe siècle. Iconographie. Esthétique, Thessaloniki, 1985.
Knorre, Boris, Icon of the Last Judgment: A Detailed Analysis. Trans. Catherine Le Gouis. Clinton MA: Museum of Russian Icons, 2013.
Miloševic, Desanka. Das Jüngste Gericht. Recklinghausen : A. Bongers, 1963.
Papaggelos, Ioakim A. “Post-Byzantine Wall-Paintings,” in The Holy and Great Monastery of Vatopaidi. Tradition, History, Art, vol. I (Mount Athos: Vatopaidi Monastery, 1998), 285-308.
1For a general survey of the late frescoes in the narthex of Vatopedi, see Ioakim A. Papaggelos, “Post-Byzantine Wall-Paintings,” in The Holy and Great Monastery of Vatopaidi. Tradition, History, Art, vol. I (Mount Athos: Vatopaidi Monastery, 1998), 285-308, esp. 289-90.
2Brenk, Die Anfänge der byzantinischen Weltgerichtsdarstellung.
3See Garidis, Etudes sur le Jugement dernier post-byzantin du XVe à la fin du XIXe siècle.