The Last Judgement (The Beaune Altarpiece) Rogier van der Weyden

Rogier van der Weyden

The Last Judgement (The Beaune Altarpiece), c.1445–50, Oil on oak, c. 220 x 548 cm (open), Hôtel-Dieu, Beaune, Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

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Christ’s Glorifying Love

Commentary by
Read by Chloë Reddaway

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).

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