Stefan Lochner’s magnificent triptych of the Last Judgement, of which this is the central panel, is one of the most compelling interpretations of the scene surviving from the late Middle Ages. Christ sits enthroned, separating the wicked from the righteous as they emerge naked from their graves: his right hand raised in blessing over the latter, his left directing the former towards eternal punishment. Lochner’s panel vividly depicts that eschatological judgement of which our passage speaks (1 Peter 4:12, 17–18). The ‘fiery ordeal’ faced by Peter’s early Christian audience is part of the so-called ‘messianic woes’, expected sufferings of God’s people as the day of reckoning approaches (see e.g. Mark 13:5–8; Romans 8:18; Revelation 7:14).
Lochner’s Last Judgement panel does not stand alone, however. It originally had side panels (now fragmented and dispersed among several different collections), presenting in twelve graphic scenes the martyrdoms of the apostles. For Lochner’s contemporaries, these apostle-martyrs would have served as powerful intercessors in the face of their own experience of suffering. They exemplify the promise that those who share Christ’s sufferings will ‘rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed’ (1 Peter 4:13). The revelation of the glory is displayed for all to see in the triptych’s central panel.
Yet, this passage from 1 Peter also contains a word of warning. Judgement begins with ‘the household of God’ (v.17). The author has regularly used architectural metaphors to describe Christian converts whose profession of faith rendered them homeless: living stones, a temple, a house (or household). Here his readers are warned against the presumption of salvation. Hence, contrasting sharply with the jubilant procession entering heaven’s gates to the left of Lochner’s panel, is the disturbing scene at bottom right. A chained devil seizes a terrified group of twelve humans—a kind of anti-apostolate—pulling them down into hell. Visible among them are pillars of the medieval Christian community: a pope, a cardinal, a bishop, and a monarch.
Judgement begins at the very door of God’s household, the Church. To whom more is given, more will be demanded.
Chapuis, Julien. 2004. Stefan Lochner: Image Making in Fifteenth-Century Cologne (Turnhout: Brepols)
12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 15But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; 16yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God. 17For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18And
19Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will do right and entrust their souls to a faithful Creator.