WEYDEN, Rogier van der
(b. 1400, Tournai, d. 1464, Bruxelles)

The Last Judgment Polyptych

Oil on wood, 215 x 560 cm
Musée de l'Hôtel-Dieu, Beaune

The Last Judgment polyptych is Rogier van der Weyden's largest work. Together with the Van Eyck brothers' Adoration of the Lamb, this is one of the absolute masterpieces of the golden age of Flemish painting.

The enormous polyptych is made up of fifteen panels of different sizes. It was painted by Rogier Van der Weyden and his studio for the "great hall of the poor" in the Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune. This hospital was founded by the fabulously wealthy Chancellor Rolin, and his devout third wife, Guigonne de Salins, for the salvation of their souls and in the hope of storing up treasures in heaven. Work began in 1443. The room was a vast open nave, with a panelled barrel vault for a ceiling, and could contain thirty canopied beds along its two long walls. The polyptych was placed at one end of this space, behind the altar, in a chapel separated from the nave by an "open-work wooden partition", through which patients could follow the divine service from their sick beds.

As long as the polyptych hung in the chapel, it was traditional to open the wings on Sundays and solemn feast days. But since it has been restored, it is now kept in a neighbouring room which is air-conditioned to prevent any further deterioration due to the heat generated by the three hundred thousand visitors who come to see it each year. The panels were sawn in half across the thickness of the wood a few years ago, and both front and the reverse are now exhibited simultaneously, side by side.

On either side of the central figures of Christ and the archangel Michael, the composition is built up on two levels. Above is a cloud of gold, on which are seated the apostles, judges in the celestial tribunal, as well as a pope, a bishop, a king, a monk and three women. Below them is the earth, from which the resurrected souls emerge, to go either to damnation or to eternal bliss. The central panel is dominated by the son of God, seated on a semi-circular rainbow, with the Virgin Mary at one end of the arc and St John the Baptist at the other. Christ's feet rest on a sphere, symbol of the universe. With his right hand, he blesses those who are saved and with his left curses those who are damned. These two gestures are emphasized by appropriate emblems, respectively, a lily and a blazing sword. Beneath Christ stands St Michael, prince of the heavenly hosts. He is pictured as young, because he is immortal and as handsome, because he is the embodiment of divine justice. He holds in his hands a scale in which he weighs souls. The souls are represented by two little naked figures, whose names are "Virtutes" and "Peccata". The former kneels, overcome with delight, while the latter seems horrified and screams with terror.

The lower tier depicts the elect and the damned. They are represented by two small groups of figures. They too are naked and are portrayed on a smaller, more human scale, than the saints above them. We see them propelled inexorably towards their fate. The damned are crushed beneath the weight of their sins. They have themselves painfully up out of the cracked dry earth, surrounded by sparks of fire and wisps of smoke. In contrast, on the opposite side of the polyptych, as one approaches paradise, flowers grow more and more abundant. In Van der Weyden's time, woman was regarded as a temptress and it was therefore more difficult for her to be saved than for a man - hence there are only two women in the group which, lead by an angel, are about to ascend to heaven. It was also believed that lunatics were possessed by demons. Here, the figures of the damned are tortured and deformed by hatred and their faces distorted by madness. Gripped by a collective hysteria, they are unable to weep, but instead scream and fight, as their folly draws them on towards eternal punishment. At the far left-hand side of the polyptych, paradise is represented as a gothic porch ablaze with light, the door that leads to the divine dwelling place. On the other side, hell is strangely lacking in devils. Instead, it is merely represented by a pile of dark rocks spewing flames and volcanic vapours.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.