This modestly sized triptych elides a remarkable number of different motifs to drive its message home. Jesus sits in judgement, the dove of the Holy Spirit above his head, and the tetragrammaton (a four-letter representation of the Name of God) at the apex of the painting: we are in the presence of the Holy Trinity.
At Christ’s feet is the cross, strongly foreshortened, the book of the law resting open on it. On either side sit Saints Andrew and Peter, as well as Moses and Aaron, with the Virgin and John the Baptist interceding on our behalf, as in an Orthodox Deësis. At the top of each wing an angel sounds a trumpet for the end of time. One holds a lily, the other, a flaming sword, attributes of Mercy and Justice that are often held by Jesus himself.
The blessed to the left of the central panel represent the seven acts of mercy. They include a pilgrim with the coat of arms of the German city of Münster, where the artist was born and died: this could be a self-portrait (Riewerts and Pieper 1955: 32). An angel indicates heaven, while the damned, represented on the right by personifications of the seven deadly sins, are chased to hell by a demon.
In the wings the blessed head up a spiral staircase, and the damned are dragged towards a flaming pit. Again, these are not random members of the human race, but the wise and foolish maidens, lamps in their hands. The meaning of the parable is made explicit: the awaited marriage is our communion with Christ at the end of days, and we must be prepared. After all, Death is coming to get us. He stands in a funeral bier at the centre of the painting aiming his bow and arrow at the viewer. The wonder of this foreshortening is that, from whichever angle you see it, Death appears to be shooting at you.
‘You know neither the day nor the hour’, the parable tells us (v.13), nor, as the painting makes clear, is there any escape.
Riewerts, Theodor and Paul Pieper. 1955. Die Maler tom Ring (Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag), pp. 32–33
25 “Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. 6But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. 8And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. 11Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.