Ukrainian Depictions of the Last Judgement
An Icon from the Museum of the History of Religion, Lviv
Dr Aleksandra Koutny-Jones, ICE, University of Cambridge (email@example.com)
Fig. 1 Anonymous Ukrainian artist, Last Judgement Icon, late 16th century-17th century, oil on wood, Lviv Museum of the History of Religion (Zh 442, L’v MA-2115). Photograph: A. Koutny-Jones.
The biblical scene of the Last Judgement (known in Rus’ as the strashnyi sud, meaning ‘terrible’ or ‘fearful’ judgement) refers to the end of the world as it is described in the Book of Revelation, when God will judge the living and the dead to decide whether they will go to heaven or hell. Wall paintings of the Last Judgement appeared in Eastern-rite churches in Kyiv and Chernihiv as early as the eleventh and twelfth centuries and this tradition continued in Ukrainian territories in the early modern period in the form of icons (images painted on wood). Such sacral art, the production of which was frequently delegated to monks, would encourage onlookers to lead a godly life in the fear of God, and to be mindful of the judgement that awaited them.
The Carpathian region, in particular, witnessed a flourishing of Last Judgement iconography from the fifteenth century onwards. Examples of this rich early-modern tradition survive in what is now eastern Slovakia, southeastern Poland and the western oblasts of Ukraine, especially Lviv and Transcarpathia. The distinctive and large icons produced there – often a couple of metres high – are replete with biblical details as well as references to contemporary life in southwestern Rus’. Densely packed with portrayals of saints, mortals and devils, these paintings were not part of the iconostasis (icon screen) at the east end of the church but instead were placed on its western walls for worshipers to see as they departed.
This paper will focus upon one such early modern Last Judgement icon in the collections of the Museum of the History of Religion in Lviv. As John-Paul Himka has argued, this large icon is likely to have been created in the Máramaros region of Transcarpathia, since it bears a close similarity to artworks in the western Ukrainian villages of Roztoka and Tiushka. Although a third of the painting has been lost, many of its brightly-painted elements remain intact.
The Lviv icon is divided into heavenly and earthly zones. At the top left of the surviving section is a golden roundel (rather than a mandorla) within which Christ appears in judgement, wearing red robes and flanked by the Mother of God and John the Baptist. Christ is surrounded by angels, since ‘the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him’ (Matt. 25:31). Below this group is an altar with angels blowing trumpets either side, and beneath that are the scales of justice held by the hand of God, on which deeds are weighed to decide a person’s fate: some individuals will be saved, and some will be damned.
Those who are damned fall through a stream of flames into the everlasting lake of fire, Gehenna, whose dragon-like jaws fill the bottom-right corner of the icon. At the centre of this depiction of hell is a grey figure of the devil, who clutches a human soul. All around are horned demons or devils, who capture unrighteous souls in nooses; one even drives them into the fire in a wheelbarrow, while two tavern keepers ride on the back of a devil. A representation of Death carrying a scythe is also incorporated; like many elements in this icon, this skeletal figure is identified with a textual label.
Fig. 2 Anonymous Ukrainian artist, Last Judgement Icon: detail showing a skeletal Death, late 16th century-17th century, oil on wood, Lviv Museum of the History of Religion. Photograph: A. Koutny-Jones.
Depictions of contemporary personages, represented in rows above an image of a sea monster, which is symbolic of Resurrection, made this icon particularly relevant to its original audience. The figures are dressed in distinctive attire to represent different social groups, among them Unitarians and Ottoman Turks. Unusually, Cossacks are also included here, and one holds his hand out to a Tatar, alluding to the Cossack-Tatar alliances forged in the early modern period. This Last Judgement painting is, therefore, imbued with a political and social message as well as a religious one.
This complex icon also incorporates less well-known subject-matter, which is specifically associated with Last Judgement icons produced in Roztoka and Tiushka in Transcarpathia. One such motif is that of the Queen of the South, a rare element in Carpathian iconography and unseen elsewhere in such Orthodox art. It refers to the textual precedent: ‘The Queen of the South shall rise up in the judgement with the men of this generation, and condemn them’ (Lk 11: 31). Another is the depiction of Joachim and Anna, parents of the Mother of God, who appear in the upper part of the painting. They are also included in the comparable Last Judgement icon from Roztoka although they have no obvious link with this biblical theme.
Fig. 3 Anonymous Ukrainian artist, Last Judgement Icon: detail showing the Works of Mercy, Death riding a donkey, and a devil with a wheelbarrow, late 16th century-17th century, oil on wood, Lviv Museum of the History of Religion. Photograph: A. Koutny-Jones.
More appropriate to the Last Judgement and worthy of particular mention are the representations of the Works of Mercy as described in the Gospel of Meatfare Sunday: ‘For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me’ (Mt 25: 35-6). Meatfare (or Judgement) Sunday occurs on the third Sunday of the three-week period prior to Great Lent and is the last day before Easter for eating meat, after which Orthodox Christians observe a fast. It is a day to contemplate the Last Judgement, making it an appropriate scene for such an artwork.
The Last Judgement icon at the Lviv Museum of the History of Religion draws upon a long tradition of such religious iconography in Eastern-rite churches within Ukrainian territories. The anonymous artist of this sizeable painting harnessed biblical and contemporary themes to communicate a proselytising message about heaven and hell to church congregations. Through its scale, complexity and bold design, this artwork constitutes an important reminder of the rich traditions of religious art in Transcarpathia in the early modern period.
Liliya Berezhnaya and John-Paul Himka, The World to Come: Ukrainian Images of the Last Judgment, Harvard University Press 2014, pp. 210-213.
John-Paul Himka, Last Judgment Iconography in the Carpathians, University of Toronto Press 2009, pp. 136-142.
L.M. Miasnikova et al., L’vovskii muzei istorii religii i ateizma. Putevoditel’, Kameniar 1988, pp. 32-33.