A Last Judgment That Lacks Heaven

The relevance of iconography for the study of the history of mentalities has been uncontested in the Western cultural space for the last few decades. The seminars organized in Aix-en-Provence on the relationship between iconography and the history of mentalities as far back as 1976 and 1978, respectively, bear witness to the interest that this rapport enjoys, as well as to the necessity to systematize the lines of research existent at that date. In the late 60's, works on art history tended to focus on thematic series capable to uncover the mentality of a given society in a certain epoch. One of the privileged research nuclei in the West set out to analyze the various attitudes towards death and the after-world, by investigating the representations of the Last Judgment, the ex-votos, the scenes from the Macabre Dance, the illustrations of the Triumph of Death, of the legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead, etc. The importance of this undertaking is increased by the status of the image, which has to be understood as a product of the interaction between sender and receiver and, at the same time, as a clue to the mentality that generated it. As the representations are included in an iconographic project, they are frequently subject to influence from related scenes. Further conditioning comes from accompanying legends meant to guide the reading of the image because, as Laurent Gervereau words it, "often an image exists by means of its legend. It is linked to this legend as to a life buoy. Conversely, an image without a legend floats adrift in the interstellar space which often annihilates it, renders it useless, lost in the realm of supposition, attribution and interpretation."Similar results were conceivably caused, in earlier centuries, by the preachers' discourse. Constructing their argumentation rhetorically, they most often impressed their illiterate audience by means of the suggestive power of the terrifying image. Interesting testimony to the point is provided by the answer that a Romanian clergyman gave the foreign traveller Evliya Celebi, who had reacted upon seeing the Last Judgment painted on the wall of the "Three Hierarchs" cathedral in Iassy: "I swear, aga, that our people are ignorant and when we give sermons and advice from the pulpit they understand us not. We cannot convey to them the meaning of our words through symbolic language, as your sheikhs do. Therefore we have all these faces painted [the devils – author's note] and while we preach we show them: Heaven is like this, Hell is like that." In the West, itinerant monks supplemented their discourse with those Bilderbogen (printed plates) that began to circulate prompted by the development of xylography, while Portuguese preachers used to throw skulls and bones onto the crowd gathered to listen to the beneficial word, in the age of the chapels built entirely of human bones. Every representation tends to call to mind the original, sometimes to such a degree of faithfulness that the image (the copy) could be mistaken for the reality. In the case of eschatological scenes, imagination had to fill in the "blanks" of reality. The variants proposed by the painters who decorated the wooden or masonry churches in Romania tell, equally, of a pictorial tradition stemming from the information existent in the handbooks or the model catalogues, but also of the masters' resourcefulness in finding the most expressive plastic solutions. An eschatology bearing specific marksThe thematic differences between Romanian iconography, subsumed to the Byzantine tradition, and Western iconography derive from the differences in vision, justifiable in turn through the distinctions in the larger realm of mentalities. To a certain extent, they originate also in the differences of religious nature that left their mark on the Orthodox and Catholic spaces respectively. The eschatological register of Romanian painting overlaps in certain thematic spheres with the Western one, the presence or absence of some of the sense being, in some cases, a natural consequence of the religious doctrine adopted. Thus, the image of the damned expiating part of their sins in Purgatory (a scene accompanied, especially in miniatures, by the image of Saint Gregory's Liturgy, celebrated to help save the souls caught in an intermediary stage) is one of the iconographic themes with a large circulation in the Catholic West but inexistent in the Romanian space, since Orthodox doctrine does not acknowledge Purgatory. The research carried out by Gaby and Michel Vovelle in the seventh decade of the last century in churches from southern France revealed more than 250 images relating to this typology. Furthering his investigations, Michel Vovelle reaches the conclusion that the spreading of the themes in question was achieved, in northern France, by means of "mobile images, of traveling prints," since Breton missionaries used to illustrate their discourse with drawings cut into cow skin, capable to administer a "shock therapy" to the viewer by suggesting the different roads laid before the saved souls, the damned souls or those lingering in the waiting that characterizes Purgatory.There are however a number of iconographic themes that feature, with the due nuances, in both Western and Romanian iconography. Among these, the most wide-spread both in time and in space seems to be the Last Judgment, a scene extensively treated by handbooks. In the first decades of the 18th century, Dionysus of Furna suggested, in the manual dedicated to the painting of religious establishments, the following model for the depiction of the scene entitled Christ's Right Last Judgment: "Christ, sitting upon a high and fair throne, robed in white more radiant than the sun, surrounded by all the heavenly armies trembling with fright, blesses the saints with His right hand, while with His left points to the sinners' place of torment. And a great light shines about Him and above Him these words: 'Jesus Christ, the right judge.'" The distinction between the righteous and the sinners is thus marked, from the very start, by the opposition between the gestures made with the right and the left hand of the Savior, establishing implicitly the severance between the register of the saved ("… and the twelve apostles, sitting upon twelve thrones; and around them all the saints standing to His right, holding branches that epitomize their virtues; and they stand forming three lines. In the first line, the church fathers, the patriarchs and the prophets; in the second line the hierarchs, the martyrs and the hermits; in the third line the faithful emperors, the women martyrs and the devout women…") and of the damned ("…while to His left all the sinners together, shunned from Him, with the devils, Judas who sold Him, the tyrant emperors, the idol worshippers, the antichrists, the heretics, the murderers, the traitors, the thieves, the deceivers, the merciless, the gluttons, the misers, the liars, the swindlers, the panders, the debauchees and all the dishonest and the accursed, and above them all the learned and the Pharisees vile and stupid and the other Jews…") A scene recurrent over the entire Romanian territoryThe earliest frescoes depicting the Last Judgment on Romanian territory were identified at Sântămărie Orlea (1311) and Streisângeorgiu (1313), both in Hunedoara county. Several centuries later, wooden churches in north-western Transylvania would decorate their porches with the same image with recognizable satirical, realistic accents suggested by selecting the categories of sinners from the panoply of characters easily identifiable in the rural universe: the miller, the innkeeper, the woman who bewitches the cows to dry up their milk, he who ploughs furrows into the neighbor's land, the unfair judges, he who bears false witness, etc.The Moldavian religious establishments, "endowed" in the 16th century with a pictorial garment, preserve in the exonarthex images of the Judgment accompanied by a series of "apocalyptic symbols" (the Lamb, the Throne, the psychomach, or the Ladder of Virtues in the popular version of the Gates of Heaven) meant to prepare the churchgoer before entering the sacred enclosure. Besides, the exonarthex constitutes a felicitous choice of place for depicting the respective scenes, as it is a "space of passage, the transitional area par excellence that sheds light, both from an architectonic and iconographic point of view, on the entrance to the church, like the enlarged threshold of a gate, opening beyond the end of time." (Anca Vasiliu) The oldest illustrations of the Last Judgment on Wallachian territory (dating back to the Brâncoveanu period) appear on the porch; while in Maramureş, on one or several of the narthex walls (exterior painting is very infrequent in this region). In southern Transylvania, the presence of the scene is due to the influence of Brâncoveanu style representations brought up here from Walachia by a succession of "peregrine artists such as those who decorated, for instance, the chapel of the "Annunciation" church in Scheii Braşovului (1738), that of the "Assumption" church (1750-52), and churches in Tălmăcel, Sibiu county (1780), Turnu Roşu (1770) and many other churches." (Marius Porumb)In the 18th century, the extensive iconographic composition seems to generalize all over the Romanian territory. Where did Heaven disappear?The "Archangels Michael and Gabriel" church in Corund (Codru area) presents an interesting illustration of the theme. Initially the wooden construction (erected in 1723), "of rectangular shape, with polygonal unhooked apse, with a porch along the southern and western sides going down to the altar apse" (Ioan Godea, Ioana Cristache-Panait), was located towards the eastern limit of the village, in the middle of the cemetery. After 1848 the church was displaced and relocated approximately 300 meters farther on beech wood blocks, from the old symbolic village centre (Pârâul Fagului) to the new, the process extending over a period of three years, during which time religious service inside the church continued without interruptions. Despite the displacement the monument has not lost, on the outside, its original beauty and it is still deemed a telling example of popular craftsmanship, alongside the wooden church in Soconzel (also in the Baia Mare region). We cannot say the same about the church interior, neglected ever since religious service was discontinued (in June 1975), owing to the building of a masonry edifice in the same precinct. The cobweb covering the wall painting creates contours parallel to those intended by the master painters of old, suggesting the image of a palimpsest constantly in the making. Tearing our gaze away from the fragile weave and the colors of the scenes, we become aware of the successive stages in which the painting of the church was completed. The narthex and the iconostasis were the first to be accomplished, the vault dates from late 18th century (an inscription above the interior balcony mentions the year 1798 for the completion of this painting with obvious Western influences), while the altar rounds off the pictorial cycle. On the western wall of the narthex, on either side of the entrance to the church, unfolds a strange Last Judgment that lacks Heaven or any hint, for that matter, to such a space destined, according to Orthodox eschatology, to saved souls. This absence is also "confirmed" by the game of substitution proposed by the painter Tiple Popa from Deda: the angel that customarily announced (in the compositions that comply with the prescriptions of the Byzantine handbooks) the moment of the Second Coming and of the Judgment is replaced with a devil holding a trumpet in one hand and a banner in the other, located above the semicircle inside which sits Lucifer enthroned. The scales for weighing the souls ("The Scales of Justice," as the inscription calls them) are no longer watched by any guardian angel, the only sign of salvation being the cross placed on one of the scales.However, the substitutions continue also in the malefic space: the River of Fire that normally symbolized Hell, as Dionysus of Furna informs us – "and the river of fire springs from beneath Jesus' feet and the terrific and savage devils cast the sinners into it and torment them horribly with divers evil utensils…" – is replaced by a system of overlapping registers which present in detail the pains to which the sinners are subjected, according to the sin committed. To the right of the entrance (going northwards) we can identify in the upper part beds in which lie asleep those who miss the Sunday mass ("who sleep when it is time for prayer"), a tar cauldron, whose fire is tended by two devils, while above the door "the miller man" (with a ground stone tied to his neck and a pail at his feet) and "the innkeeper man" (with a container hanging from his neck, lured by a devil seated on a barrel to taste from a goblet wine diluted with water). The middle part seems to be reserved, with the sole exception of "he who speaks abuse to his parents," for feminine characters – "the garrulous woman," "the woman who casts evil spells on babies," etc. The lower part is dedicated to the debauchers ("the harlot" and "the womanizer"), to the rich man and to the one "who swears falsely" (the latter, suggestively, has his tongue pulled off by a devil with a pair of blacksmith's tongs).To the left of the door, in the middle part, are depicted three of the symbols of destruction: Death (represented as a skeleton, with the scythe in one hand and a cup in the other), Plague (astride a white horse, a birch broom and a rake on her shoulder) and Sloth "sitting on a log with a pitchfork in her left hand from which she lets fall the distaff. With her right hand, the nude woman scratches her head, a gesture denoting idleness and boredom." (Ioan Godea; Ioana Cristache-Panait) This sinister trio is also to be found in the wall painting of the "Birth of the Virgin" church in Ulciug (Sălaj county). The strong resemblance between the above-mentioned scenes, both situated on the western wall of the narthex of the wooden religious edifices in Corund and Ulciug, might suggest the artistic vision of the same painter.The absence of Heaven, as well as the detailed depiction of the categories of sinners, placed on superposed positions – that seem to reconstruct, in a locally specific manner, the limbs of Dante's Inferno – are features that connect, from a pictorial perspective, the compositions found in the narthex of religious edifices in Corund, Chieşd, Cehei, Bicaz, Ulciug, Zalnoc, etc.According to Anca Pop-Bratu, the presence of the Last Judgment in the painting of the narthex alongside other images with eschatological undertones (the Gates of Heaven or the Parable of the Wise Maidens and the Foolish Maidens) can be explained by means of the "significance of the rooms" (the narthex accommodates, in churches from the Maramureş area, "scenes with funeral meaning"). The assumption also stands in the case of the monuments in Ţara Crişurilor (Cris Rivers Country). The painter masters from this region seem nevertheless to "forget" that the Judgment does not solely imply damnation, but salvation as well. The disappearance of the beneficent space and characters might come to represent a genuine stylistic mark of these religious establishments. The reasons behind the unusual absence are still to be uncovered. Until then, the question "Where did Heaven disappear?" remains unanswered. Cultura, No. 32, October 2004

by Cristina Bogdan