Some biblical texts recount things that are in the writer’s past. Some envision things that are in the writer’s future but the reader’s past. Some tell stories or give instructions. But Revelation 20:11–15 recounts a vision of something that is yet to come, not only for the writer, but for every single reader of the text. It foretells a final judgement to be passed on the lives of the dead according to records of their deeds, and of a sovereign Book of Life.
This claim to be a literary account of a pictorial vision foretelling a universal future gives the text a complicated form and status, which inevitably shapes its artistic reception. Though Revelation 20:11–15 is a visionary text, it follows the Jewish apocalyptic style of presenting the vision not directly, but in the form of a reported experience: ‘Then I saw a great white throne…’ (v.11).
In drawing attention to its status as a seer’s secondary report of his vision, the text grants the artists who engage with it unusual power. Other biblical texts may press them into the role of illustrators or interpreters; this text, by contrast, raises them above itself. Representations of the Last Judgement, in being visual, can implicitly function as though they are the originals of the reported text.
This reversal of the roles of text and illustration has a radical effect not only on artists but also on their audiences. If an image assumes the role of the vision reported by the text of Revelation 20:11–15, then its onlooker assumes the role of the visionary who beholds it: he or she stands with Revelation’s seer, John of Patmos. Pictorial representation therefore heightens the dynamic that drives the book of Revelation itself: a visionary vortex designed to draw readers and viewers into its movement of terrible hope for the ‘desire of nations’—‘And the Spirit and the Bride say, “Come”. And let everyone who hears say, “Come”. … Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!’ (Revelation 22:17, 20 NRSV).
This affective intensity lends a performative dimension to any encounter with a picture of the Last Judgement. Artists throughout Christian history have given that dimension particular shape by the placement of their visual representations. In the Middle Ages, Last Judgements were most often found on tympana, that is, above the main doors of large churches and cathedrals (as at Autun). There, they marked the boundary between the ‘city of the world’ and the ‘city of God’, transforming the cathedral into a symbol of the heavenly Jerusalem. Later Last Judgements were sometimes placed on altar walls (as in the Sistine Chapel). Here, they impressed on the worshippers the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist as the promise and preparation of his parousia or second coming: a nourishment in whose strength they ‘shall see God’ when ‘at the last he will stand upon the earth’ (Job 19:25–26). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Last Judgements were increasingly displayed in secular gallery spaces (as those painted by William Blake, or those of John Martin (Tate Gallery, T01927)). Here, they intended to give new depth to the viewers’ ordinary experience.
In all these contexts, representations of the Last Judgement aim not at a self-sufficient aesthetic experience, but at an active re-orientation within the world towards the salvation they envision. By stepping through the cathedral doors, by eating and drinking, by awakening their imagination to the hidden depth of the world, onlookers are empowered to enact the decisions that their visual confrontation with the ‘great divorce’ between blessed and damned demands. By being in some sense more real than the world around them, the images make that world, and the choices of those who have seen them, more real in turn.
11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who sat upon it; from his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. 13And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done. 14Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15and if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.