The Last Judgement

(Russia; seventeenth century)

Russia; seventeenth century; 162 x 112 cm

Feast: Meat-Fasting Sunday (second Sunday before the beginning of Great Lent)


The iconography of the Last Judgment has been evolving since the fourth century. The Good Shepherd, who separates the sheep from the goats, was gradually replaced by the Judge of the entire world, surrounded by angels and saints. He represents victory over the forces of darkness and restores justice. Since the tenth century, the theme of the Last Judgement has appeared as part of the Christian East on the western walls of temples or in halls. A similar iconography is found on an eighteenth century icon located at the bottom of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

Description of the icon:

The icon can be divided into a number of layers. In the upper row, the fundamental truth of the Christian faith is expressed. Creation will achieve its ultimate goal at the moment of the second coming of Jesus Christ. Created from nothing, it has transcended time to reach eternity where there is no longer space or time, where there is only God’s way of existence. Central to this row is God the Father in the midst of the heavenly powers, as a symbol of heaven in which God dwells. The composition is placed in a circle, similar to the image of the Holy Trinity of the New Testament, with Fatherhood depicted on the right, surrounded by crowds of angels. The circle, as a symbol of eternity, only completes the symbolism of heaven of the upper row of the icon. Complementing this “heavenly row” is the scene on the left, where crowds of people who have been redeemed are displayed in the windows of houses. The iconographer interpreted the words of Christ here: “In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know.” (John 14:2-4).

In the second row, the composition of Deésis with Christ in the middle is depicted, with the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist on the sides, bowing to Him in humbleness, with their arms stretched out in prayer. They intercede with Christ the Judge for mercy for those who appear in court. Apostles sitting on benches are behind the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist and a crowd of angels behind them with spears in their hands, guarding them. The participation of the apostles near Christ the Judge corresponds to the words of the Gospel: “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Matthew 19:28). The apostles hold open books in their hands, as a sign that they have faithfully proclaimed the truth entrusted to them by their Teacher. The Last Judgment is taking place under the feet of Christ, who is firmly standing on the sphere of the universe. All humankind is being judged, represented by our grandparents Adam and Eve, kneeling in humility at the feet of the Judge.

The empty throne, hetoimasia (ἑτοιμασία), is in the third row of not only the central part of this row but of the entire icon. A cross with a spear and a reed, symbols of Christ’s suffering and our redemption, can be seen behind the throne. There is a pillow on the throne and the Book of Life on it, in which the names of all people with their good and bad deeds are written. The Book of Life is open as a sign that everything that has been hidden so far has been revealed in the light of the last day. The symbolic hand of God, holding the scales of justice, on which good and evil deeds are weighed, is below the hetoimasia. Evil is in the bowl of the scales on the Judge’s left and good in the bowl on the right. The icon depicts the judgement of a person that has risen from the grave, aided by an angel, who is knocking down the demons from the left bowl of the scales. The chosen ones, led by Kings David and Solomon, are on the right of God’s throne, the hetoimasia. The prophet Moses is leading crowds of nations on the other side, while pointing to Christ with his raised right hand. The prophet Daniel is present as he speaks to an angel beneath the multitude of the righteous: “At that time Michael shall stand up, The great prince who stands watch over the sons of your people; And there shall be a time of trouble, Such as never was since there was a nation, Even to that time. And at that time your people shall be delivered, Every one who is found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some to everlasting life, Some to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Daniel 12:1-2).

The last two rows at the bottom of the icon represent a break in this scheme. The vertical axis descends from the Father and Christ, passes through the hetoimasia, and ends with the image of God’s symbolic hand holding the scales of God’s justice. This imaginary axis becomes a line separating the two worlds: paradise with the chosen ones at the bottom left of the icon (from the perspective of the viewer) and hell at the bottom right of the icon.

Paradise is to the left, below the crowd of the chosen ones. There is a place of peace, a symbolic representation of heavenly paradise with the three Old Testament patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob holding the souls of the righteous, is in the third upper row. This symbolic representation of eternal rest after the suffering of earthly life corresponds with the words of Christ in connection with the soul of Lazarus resting in Abraham's womb (cf. Luke 16:22). A crowd of the chosen ones is led by Saint Peter who arrives at the gates of paradise to open it with his key, as it is still closed and guarded by a cherub. The Garden of Eden is depicted as a city with walls, the New Jerusalem. “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Revelation 21:1-2).

Hell is on the opposite side of paradise. It is a symbolically placed hell, depicted as the open oesophagus of a snake, full of fire and sulphur. Satan and Judas stand in its throat with Judas holding a sack with thirty silver coins. A snake with horns emerges from the mouth of a sea beast approaching up to the heel of Adam. The head of this mighty snake touches the heel of Adam - the father of mankind, which, according to Egon Sendler, is an expression of the wrath of the prince of darkness and at the same time a symbol of the painful consequences of Adam's sin for all mankind, from which only Christ's blood will cure us. The massive body of the serpent intersects the entire lower part of the icon, passing through a kind of hoop (rings). A demon with the name of a specific sin is at each hoop. According to the vision of Blessed Theodora, these are the so-called toll booths (in Church Slavonic мытарство), through which the soul of the judged person passes. There are twenty-four of them and they bear the inscriptions of individual sins. They are from the bottom up: drunkenness, fornication, murder, despair, usury, gainfulness, gluttony, pride, lewdness, cursing, slavery, judgment, fury, incest, theft, murder, deception, overeating, fury, enchantment, idolatry, lies and greed. Over time, the number and type of toll booths changed, stabilizing at twenty. The soul has to pass through the toll booths to the scales of the court. The guardian angel, the prayers of the living and the intercession of the saints in heaven help the soul. The demons are aggressively trying to grab sinners to draw them down to hell. They even try to capture the souls of the redeemed ones (see the right side). This part is protected by the archangel Michael, who knocks the demons back into the infernal flames with his spear. People from all social levels are bound by a chain and drawn to Satan at the bottom of the icon. The torments for the individual sins are depicted below.

Each icon of the Last Judgment also includes four apocalyptic animals that symbolize the four fallen empires: Babylon, Macedonia, Rome and the empire of Satan (the Antichrist), based on the prophecy of Daniel (Daniel 7:1-8, 17-18). These four animals represent the four ancient kingdoms that persecuted God's saints and are now doomed to extinction. The apocalyptic vision of the prophet Daniel symbolically and figuratively represents the end of the great empires (kingdoms) and rulers of the ancient Orient. This should allow God's dominion in the ruling of world history, brought about by the Son of Man - Christ at the end of the world, to stand out.

The naked figure of a man chained to a pillar while gazing towards paradise is an unusual detail on the icons of the Last Judgment, being a kind of imaginary boundary between paradise and hell. The figure is placed at the bottom of the icon between hell and the procession of the righteous walking to paradise. This figure is an image of lukewarm and indecisive people in this world, who will be saved from hell by their good deeds, but who are forbidden to enter paradise because of their sins. The figure on the icon therefore gazes at the group of the chosen ones from a distance.