Last Judgement by Nicolaus and Johannes

Nicolaus and Johannes

Last Judgement, Second half 12th century, Tempera on wood, 288 x 243 cm, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City, Cat. 40526, J.Enrique Molina / Alamy Stock Photo

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‘The Least of These’

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Federico Botana

This monumental painted panel represents the Last Judgement and includes the first known cycle of works of mercy inspired by Matthew 25:35–36.

The cycle, consisting of three scenes, begins just to the right of the centre of the third register. In the first scene, a haloed cleric is helping a sick man to drink from a ewer. In the second, a further blessed benefactor—this one dressed like a layman in a short tunic—is comforting a prisoner. In the third scene another haloed layman is helping a naked pauper to put on a shirt. At a glance, the cycle appears to include only three of the six good deeds mentioned in the scriptural passage: visiting the sick, visiting prisoners, and clothing the naked. However, by providing water to the sick man, the cleric is also giving drink to the thirsty; moreover, he carries a basket of bread which alludes to feeding the hungry. And although the good deed of lodging the stranger may initially appear to be missing from this cycle, it was often suggested through the representation of a figure against an architectural backdrop (to suggest an indoor location before the advent of pictorial perspective). So the missing work of mercy is most likely represented here in the first and the third scenes.  

This extraordinary panel was painted for San Gregorio Nazianzieno, the church of the monastery of Santa Maria in Campo Marzio in Rome, then inhabited by a community of canonesses. Together with the now very damaged frescoes of the legends of Saints Clement and Alexis in the lower church of San Clemente, it is a rare surviving example of the sophisticated visual religious culture of eleventh-century Rome.

The practitioners of the works of mercy represented here may be no more than generic portrayals of the righteous, following the late-antique convention of depicting virtues with haloes, or may represent specific saints in the Roman hagiographic tradition. For instance, they may depict the deacon Cyriacus and his companions, Largus and Smeragdus, three early Christian martyr saints who performed good deeds and were venerated by Roman female religious communities.