Triptych with the Triumph of Death and the Last Judgement by Hermann tom Ring

Hermann tom Ring

Triptych with the Triumph of Death and the Last Judgement , c.1550–55, Oil on panel, Centre panel: 82 x 75 cm; side panels 81 x 30 cm, Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, ABM s40, Album / Alamy Stock Photo

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No Escape

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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.

 

References

Riewerts, Theodor and Paul Pieper. 1955. Die Maler tom Ring (Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag), pp. 32–33


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