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Waking the Dead

Waking the Dead

Waking the Dead
Horae s. xv in.
Canterbury Cathedral H/L-3-2

This month’s ‘Picture this…’ image is the last miniature in the manuscript Book of Hours made in c.1400, H/L- 3-2, and while rather small at c.9 cm by 7cm, the picture has a dramatic impact. Immediately on seeing this painting, the viewer’s focus is deliberately directed by the artist’s use of eye-catching yellow and orange paint, which together frame Jesus in a burst of light. From the 20 miniatures in the book, this is the only time that orange and yellow have been used, making their impact at this final illumination even stronger and for good reason; this is a representation of the very end of the world at Christ’s second coming.

In Christian belief, the Last Judgement, or Judgement Day, is when ‘Christ shall come again in glory to judge the quick (the living) and the dead’ (Nicene Creed). Indeed, we can see that on each side of Jesus angels are sounding the Last Trumpets in order to waken the dead so that they can come before Christ’s judgement.

In medieval times this event had a further dimension as a central Christian belief was that the majority of departed souls spent time travelling through the trials of Purgatory while waiting for the final day. As this book was created in around 1400 the concept of Purgatory would have been a very real one for the owner. It was believed that after death, only saints went straight to Heaven, and only the unshriven and irredeemably wicked went directly to Hell, therefore the majority of the departed were held to be suffering in Purgatory. The whole field of medieval Purgatory is a fascinating topic with developments over the centuries and differences of opinion as to what it was and such matters as how time was measured there. However, it was generally accepted that although the torments were vile, it was possible to pass through them towards lesser torments and even to gain a form of inferior paradise. This could be of some comfort for those mourning lost loved-ones as by saying prayers, visiting pilgrimage sights and commissioning masses for departed souls they could pro-actively speed the deceased along the purgatorial journey. Yet, at the Last Judgement, all this would become obsolete as the living and the dead would stand together to be judged with just two options: either Heaven or Hell for all eternity.

In the manuscript image, the newly awakened dead look up at Christ as they clamber from their graves. There are both women and men, and one figure is recognisable as a monk by his tonsure. Two still have their grave clothes around them while the remainder are bare. This nakedness emphasizes their vulnerability and is a technique often used in scenes where souls are portrayed. Missing from this scene, but frequently present, is the figure of the Archangel Michael whose commission it was to aid both Christ and the souls through the judgement, for which reason he is often shown with a pair of weighing scales so that each individual could be ‘weighed in the balance.’

Although St Michael is missing, the elements of this representation are traditional for ‘Christ in Majesty’: he is seated upon a rainbow, wearing just a cloak, displaying the wounds through which he saved the world and with his feet resting upon a globe to show that he is true master of all the Earth. In a nice compositional touch, the spherical nature of the globe is here heightened by the arc of the rainbow above it and the shape of the orange and yellow around it. The globe is divided into three parts in line with medieval beliefs that there were three continents on Earth: Asia, Africa and Europe.

Christ at Judgment is regularly shown surrounded by many saints, and although Mary is generally to his right, there is no fixed pattern of which other, nor indeed how many other, saints surround him in which order. Here we do have Mary to his right and to his left is St John, discerned by his clean shaven face and long hair (often interpreted as a woman by the modern eye, this figure appears at different points elsewhere in this Book of Hours). Accentuated presence of St John the Evangelist is not a particularly common trait in representations of this scene, but is absolutely apt for this particular book. The opening miniature of H/L-3-2 is of St John in exile on the Island of Patmos receiving the apocalyptic vision of the end of the world. (Diane Heath explored such an image of St John from a different Canterbury manuscript in March 2013). In this balancing final picture, John acts as witness to the very vision he received when alive on Earth and with which this Book of Hours began.

In a multi-layering of meaning, the presence of Mary and St John in this scene of the Second Coming also brings to mind the Crucifixion. For hundreds of years in medieval manuscripts, panel paintings, carvings and windows the archetypal representation of the Crucifixion was Christ crucified in the centre, with Mary to the left and St John to the right (see Canon Irvine’s July 2013 article). This basic formula continued up into the new technology of printed image, but disappeared from view in England at the Reformation.

Instinctively, viewers of this Last Judgement page would make the connection to the Crucifixion imagery, made stronger still by the very visible wounds that Christ bears and the fact that his arms are spread wide as they were on the cross. The importance of remembering the Crucifixion at this point is that without Christ’s ultimate sacrifice, none of the souls awaiting his judgement beneath would have been saved, a fact that would have not been unappreciated by the original owner of this Book of Hours.

Jayne Wackett: Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Kent

Further Reading

  • Paul Binski, Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation (London: British Museum Press, 1996)
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