The First Epistle of John distinguishes sharply between those destined for life and glory and those who are ‘of the devil’ (3:8). It would be difficult to find a more dramatic example of such a contrast than Rogier van der Weyden’s magnificent polyptych altarpiece.
Nicolas Rolin, the wealthy Chancellor of Burgundy, and his wife Guigone de Salins founded the Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune, France, in 1443. Recent outbreaks of the plague along with the impoverishing effects of the Hundred Years’ War meant that Beaune was in dire need of a hospital. This palace of the poor, as its historic nickname attests, offered the dying both physical and spiritual comfort. At Rolin’s insistence, the great hall’s design allowed patients direct sight of the hospital’s chapel and Van der Weyden’s impressive altarpiece.
Unlike earlier panelled altarpieces of this period, Van der Weyden presented a single, panoramic scene rather than a multiplicity of smaller ones: a grand and imposing vision of Christ’s final judgement.
This victorious Christ evokes his supreme authority while openly displaying his wounds. The angels in white that surround him bear the cross along with the objects of his torture, but he is seated in majesty on a rainbow above the Archangel Michael. He rests his feet on a globe (Hebrews 10:13), and presides over the reckoning with a lily for the just on his right (a symbol of mercy) and a sword for the damned on his left (a symbol of justice). Another group of angels dressed in red attend the Archangel in summoning the dead for judgement. ‘By this it may be seen who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil’ (v.10).
Perhaps most remarkable about this work is the voluminous, fiery-gold cloud that surrounds Christ and envelops a gathering of saintly witnesses. The scale and prominent placement of these men and women contribute to the compositional balance of the scene but more importantly emphasize their place with Christ in glory. These, in 1 John’s words, ‘are God’s children’ (v.1) and who are now ‘righteous, as he is righteous’ (v.7). Together, they constitute the heavenly order that overwhelms the earthly order. As the golden cloud of Christ’s glory fills nearly the entire span of the seven horizontal panels, and elevates these saints, the altarpiece testifies to 1 John’s expectation: ‘[W]hen he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’ (v.2).
3See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3And every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.
4 Every one who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. 7Little children, let no one deceive you. He who does right is righteous, as he is righteous. 8He who commits sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. 9No one born of God commits sin; for God’s nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God. 10By this it may be seen who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not do right is not of God, nor he who does not love his brother.
11 For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, 12and not be like Cain who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13Do not wonder, brethren, that the world hates you. 14We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. 15Any one who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. 16By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.