• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Eternity in Byzantine Art

According to the apostle Paul, after the first coming of the Messiah there would be a second:

“The Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God, and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air, and so behold, I shew you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, shall we ever be with the Lord.”[1]

Another passage states:

“Behold, I shew you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” One gathers from the texts of the letters that the life of Christians, which is interrupted by death when the soul is separated from the body, will continue after death in the beyond, when body and soul are reunited upon the resurrection of the dead.”[2]

Each of these reflections is probably based on an event that occurred forty days after the Crucifixion: the Ascension. In the episode, the Bible relates that:

"While he was going and the Apostles gazed up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, 'Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will return in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’”[3]

These words were often inscribed directly onto Byzantine paintings of the Ascension as a reminder of his promise to return. Indeed, the prospect of the Second Coming (the Deutera Parousia) and its central event – the Last Judgment – was considered very real. Images of it were painted as early as the eighth century.[4] The Apocalypse, however, was not fully accepted as canonical until the early fourteenth century and so was was rarely illustrated until the post-Byzantine period.[5]

Traditionally, Christians artistically treated these notions of eternity in one of two ways. In the first, they retained the pagan ideals of the Elysian Fields and Nilotic landscapes (involving fields, flowers, fruits, vines, grapes, trees, peacocks, doves, partridges and pheasants in blissful bucolic scenes) characterized mainly by a sense of peace and plenty. A second (often borrowing lots of the former’s motifs) began to appear in the fifth century and depicted Christ reappearing in triumph.

A good example of the latter is the Epiphany of the logos in the Ambo of the Rotunda (Hagios Georgios), Thessaloniki. The entire composition, which has been linked to the sponsorship of Galla Placidia (while she was residing in Thessaloniki in preparation for the wedding of her son Valentinian III) depicts the heavenly Church and the gathering of the elect for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, in the course of which participants receive Christ descended from heaven. There follows a zone in which only the feet of twenty-four angels are preserved. Then, in the center of the dome – within a medallion held by four angels with open wings – Christ stands holding a cross in his left hand, his right in the gesture of the Pantokrator.

There’s another stunning representation in the apse of Hosios David, where Christ in Majesty, supported by the symbols of the four evangelists, is seated on a rainbow with the four rivers of Eden flowing from beneath his feet. It represents a more doctrinaire Epiphany and is connected with John’s Apocalypse and the text of the prophet Isaiah (which is related to the depiction of the ruined city behind the figure of Isaiah; the seated form at the right has been identified as John the Evangelist).

Overall it comprises a liturgical Epiphany in which the earthly Church is pictured allegorically in the lower section and the heavenly Church with Christ in Majesty above. Again, it seeks to stress the importance of the mystagogy of the Divine Liturgy, through which the earthly and heavenly spheres are conjoined. A scene also depicts one of my favourite motifs: the Hetoimasia (Preparation of the Throne) based on the text of Matthew: “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory.”[6]

Shifting on to icons, there is a twelfth-century representation of the Last Judgment at St Catherine’s Mt Sinai that deserves attention thanks – if nothing else – to the sheer number of Byzantine notions (re: eternity) it thrusts at the viewer like a brainstorm.[7] Across the top, Christ is seated in a mandorla ready to judge the quick [living] and the dead. Flanked by the twelve apostles on thrones and surrounded by a bodyguard of angels, next to Christ are the Virgin and John the Baptist (the traditional figures of the Deesis) who intercede on behalf of those to be judged. Below are the fiery wheels seen by the prophet Ezekiel in his vision of God in Majesty.

Under Christ’s feet flows the river of fire in the Book of Daniel, a narrow stream that widens as it flows to the right to become the lake of fire. Below, still on the central axis, is the Hetoimasia, on which rests the Cross and Gospels, which are adored by Adam and Eve (the first sinners) who are all prostrate and await Christ’s final judgment. Below again are two angels and devils preparing to weigh the lives of people who have succeeded or failed in imitating the love of the Trinity.

Elsewhere, the angels trumpet to wake the dead across land and sea. Animals disgorge their prey (proof that God can reassemble all Creation). An angel rolling up the scroll of heaven shows that these events occur at the end of time when, as Revelation tells us “heaven departed as a scroll.”

The rest of the composition shows the stark contrast between the damned and saved. The condemned (on the left) suffer a lake of fire, the gnashing of teeth, the worm that never sleeps, the unquenchable fire and the outer darkness (all described in Matthew 24-25). Hades has a soul on his lap, probably that of Judas – the one sinner whose chance of redemption seems mightily slim. On Christ’s right are the “choirs” arranged as if they were dignitaries at the imperial court. They enter the presence of Christ as one might be invited into the presence of the emperor: in groups according to rank.

Below is the gate of Paradise, barred by a fiery angel to a group that approaches with St Peter. Behind it, a heaven of pleasant groves and vines harbours Abraham who has the soul of an innocent on his lap. He is flanked by the souls of baptized children who died too young to sin. And above him sits the Virgin on a lovely throne, an instance of the only human (not related to God) who was able to proceed directly to heaven upon her death. The man clutching a cross is the Good Thief, proof that Christ’s words were true when he told him “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”[8]

Finally, it’s worth stressing that this scattergram of afterlife notions was not a distant and abstract prospect to Byzantines. The Second Coming was a direct and ever-looming inevitability. Sources rarely record the dread (or joyous anticipation) of poor or middling sorts but the thoughts of emperors are better represented. To give an example, one night Romanos I – who had assumed the throne in place of his son-in-law, the legitimate Constantine Porphyrogennitos – suffered a terrifying vision: two white-clothed eunuchs were taking him by the hand to a place in the palace called the Trikymbalon (from which he could see a pit ablaze with a great pyre, which was being stoked by dozens of henchmen).[9] There he was forced to watch his son Constantine and the metropolitan of Herakleia being thrown into the flames before waking – only to find both had died in the night.[10] It’s telling that his first reaction was not to laugh it off or keep it a private affair for his own conscience. Instead, he told all and sundry about his alarming vision and issued pleas to monks all over the empire to pray for him.

[1] 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18

[2] 1 Corinthians 15:51-52

[3] Acts 1:10-11

[4] An eighth-century treatise directed at Constantine V noted “If you look at a representation of the Second Coming, you would see how He comes in His glory, and the myriad of angels standing before His throne with fear and trembling, the river of fire that flows from the throne and consumes the sinners; if you see the joy and gladness of the righteous on the right hand of God, and how they rejoice before the Bridegroom, could you then in mind and in heart remain hard and stubborn, and your heart not be pierced by that fearsome hour?” (Oratio adv. Constantinum Calabinum: PG 95:309-344; B. Brenk, “Anfange der Byzantinischen Weltgerichtsdarstellung” Byzantinische Zeitschrift 57 [1964], 110).

[5] The text was not routinely included in New Testament manuscripts and not illustrated when they were. Readings from the Apocalypse never entered the liturgy. That is not to say, however, that elements of the Apocalypse imagery did not make their way into depictions of the Last Judgment.

[6] Matthew 25:31

[7] Its lack of coherence is unusual. When there is a conflation of events in a Byzantine composition, it is usually presented as thematically perfect i.e. bestowing a sense of coherence on a succession of events. Here, however, there’s no spatial coherence nor even an easily readable narrative or cycle of narratives. Instead, it’s a brainstorm, an icon-version of a florilegium on all the biblical elements (Isaiah, Daniel, Matthew, Revelation etc.) that pertain to the last judgment.

[8] Luke 23:43

[9] Incidentally, this was also the site where Alexios I would later burn the Bogomils.

[10] Theophanes continuatus, VI: 4, ed. I. Bekker, 437.20 – 440.14 Bonn; S. Runciman, The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and His Reign (1929) 235-36.

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