Medieval Depictions of the Last Judgment: The Resurrection of the Body

Glencairn Museum News | Number 2, 2018

The Resurrected Rising: A man wearing a green burial shroud and a woman wearing a red shroud climb out of their tombs at the Last Judgment. The man is holding his hands in prayer. This thirteenth-century French stained glass roundel, in the collection of Glencairn Museum (ca. 1225, 03.SG.211), originally came from the east rose window of the parish church in Donne-marie-en-Montois (southwest of Provins). The roundel is now installed in one of the lancet windows on the east wall of Glencairn’s Great Hall.

The Body in the Theology of the Last Judgment

Drawn from Scripture,1 the resurrection of the dead at the time of the Last Judgment was an accepted feature of Christian eschatological doctrine from the days of the early Church. Yet, a point of theological debate equally as old was the nature of the physical body and its significance for a spiritual afterlife. On the one hand, there was the belief that the body was a mere vessel for the soul. From this viewpoint, the body’s purpose was complete upon death and it was thereafter of no further consequence. The contrasting view saw material continuity as vital. The selfsame physical body inhabited during life would be resurrected for judgment and subsequently glorified for Heaven or condemned to Hell (Bynum 1991, 240; 1995, 157-185).

The idea of material continuity especially captivated medieval scholastics who concerned themselves with elaborate models to account for the physical and spiritual union of the body by reverse engineering its ramifications based on the Last Judgment (Bynum 1991, 253-264; Brown 1981, 239-244). At the time of the Last Judgment, what exactly constituted the essential material of an individual, and could it be lost or gained? If a person unknowingly consumed what had been the essential matter of another person, for instance by eating a fish that had eaten a human, was that person a cannibal (Bynum 1991, 242-244)? While such questions might seem to us today to possess the flavor of academic absurdity, they were nonetheless serious matters. Indeed, Church laws addressed such fringe concerns as second-hand cannibalism by prohibiting the eating of certain kinds of animals such as carrion birds that might have consumed human flesh, a restriction that applied even to their eggs.2

On a pragmatic level, the Church increasingly reinforced material continuity as dogma. The first canon of the Fourth Lateran Council, summoned by Innocent III in 1215, laid the question of the body’s nature to rest and insisted on an individual’s resurrection within the selfsame body inhabited in life (Bynum 1991, 240). The Church’s sacraments and ritual observances only further reinforced the emphasis: To facilitate the Last Judgment, Christians were to be buried in consecrated ground, and a qualifying condition for this was baptism (Nilsson 1989, 228-229). Nevertheless, the medieval Christian attitude towards the body can be characterized as dualistic, believing in the distinctness of the soul with respect to the body while at the same time insisting on its absolute identity with it (see Figure 1 below; also Bynum 1991, 247, 266; 1995, 155, 229-230). Evidence for prevailing attitudes towards the body and its role in the Last Judgment can be found in the art of the medieval period. 


Figure 1: Glencairn’s twelfth-century capital from the French abbey church of Moutiers-Saint-Jean (ca. 1150-1160, 09.SP.94) illustrates Jesus’ parable about Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 19:19-25). A winged devil hovers above the body of the rich man on his deathbed, waiting for his soul. The soul is shown exiting the mouth of the dying man. 


The Last Judgment in Medieval Art

The Last Judgment was one of the most important iconographic themes of the Middle Ages, and was depicted variously in its art (Hayward and Cahn 1982). In the medium of stained glass, the Last Judgment was a favored subject portrayed in rose windows and portals of churches and cathedrals (Hayward and Cahn 1982, 200). The west rose window (ca. 1205-10) of Chartres Cathedral in France is a prime example, depicting at the center Christ in Judgment, around whom are arrayed figures of angels, demons, the elect, and the damned, among others (Hayward and Cahn 1982, 134). Glencairn Museum’s collection includes several individual panels from Last Judgment rose windows. Four such panels from an abbey in northeastern France, dating from ca. 1215-1220, depict the resurrection of the dead, each showing a male nude figure, half-clad in a shroud, rising from a sarcophagus (Figures 2-3; see also lead photograph above).

Figure 2: Three thirteenth-century stained glass panels from an abbey in northeastern France, in the collection of Glencairn Museum (ca. 1215-1220, 03.SG.204-206), depict the dead rising from their tombs at the Last Judgment. The Last Judgment was a common subject in rose windows and portals of churches and cathedrals. These panels are now installed in clear-glass windows on the third floor of Glencairn. 

Figure 3: This rose window panel, from an abbey in northeastern France, depicts a male nude figure, half-clad in a shroud, rising from a sarcophagus (ca. 1215-1220, 03.SG.205). The panel is now installed in a clear-glass window on the third floor of Glencairn. 

Equally comprehensive images of the Last Judgment can be found in the mosaics and frescoes of religious houses. In terms of composition, the medieval West was receptive to the iconographic program of the Eastern Orthodox or Byzantine Church (Bynum 1991, 280-284; 1995, 194-197), with the Italian monastery of Monte Cassino serving as a nexus for its dissemination (Jónsdóttir 1959, 65-73). Of interest were depictions of the regurgitation and reassemblage of the blessed at Christ’s Second Coming, and conversely, the division and dismemberment of the damned in Hell (Bynum 1991, 284, 287). Such representations employ horizontal panels that depict Christ at the top presiding over the Last Judgment, accompanied by elders, apostles, and archangels. Beneath, angels sound trumpets causing animals beneath, on land, and fishes in the sea to regurgitate pieces of human bodies they had consumed: hands, feet, torsos, and heads. The blessed are shown at the left, being led to Christ’s throne, while the damned are herded into Hell, first by angels and next by tormenting demons. In Hell, those condemned are tortured in flames and devoured by monsters. Satan sits on his throne with the anti-Christ on his lap, surrounded by the disembodied heads and dismembered limbs of the damned (Jónsdóttir 1959, 27-35). This particular depiction of the Last Judgment is meant to strike the fear of God in its viewers and excite into them a penitent attitude derived from terror at the prospect of eternal damnation (Jónsdóttir 1959, 78-76). The 11th century mosaic in the basilica church at Torcello, Italy (Figure 4) is the most famous example of the Byzantine Last Judgment’s reproduction in Western Christendom (Bynum 1991, 286-287; 1995, 188-190).


Figure 4: The Last Judgment is depicted in this eleventh-century mosaic on the west wall of the basilica church of Santa Maria Assunta at Torcello, Italy. Photo © User: Ismoon / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0.


Glencairn Museum’s Christ in Majesty fresco (Figure 5) offers a somewhat different and interesting take on the Last Judgment. It focuses instead on Christ’s Second Coming. Originally part of a cycle narrating the life of Christ and Mary, this fresco, from the very end of the 13th century, adorned the walls of Santa Maria inter Angelos, a convent founded in 1229 near Spoleto, Italy by St. Clare of Assisi or her followers, referred to commonly as Poor Clares (Carpegna Falconieri 2017, 30-34). It features Christ in Judgment surrounded by archangels, elders, and trumpeting angels; below, humans, the living and resurrected, await judgment. The composition especially emphasizes the Virgin Mary, seen as intercessor and protector, shielding humans from Christ’s wrath as they huddle beneath her widespread cloak. In the center, the splendidly clad Elect rise above their tombs, while to the right sinners in purgatory strike a penitent attitude. Notably absent are images of demons dragging the damned to Hell and punishing them there, as usually found on other Last Judgment depictions (Miller 2017, 182-192). Its depiction of Mary as Madonna della Misericordia, Virgin of Mercy, is one of the earliest (Fachechi 2017, 108), and characteristic of a style of venerating Mary that arose in the 11th and 12th centuries as Christians sought a more emotional connection with God.


Figure 5: This fresco from a late thirteenth-century convent in Spoleto, Italy, features Christ in Majesty surrounded by archangels, elders, and trumpeting angels. Living and resurrected humans await judgment below. On exhibit in the Great Hall of Glencairn Museum (08.FS.06).


As this limited survey of Last Judgment depictions indicates, there were variations in its graphic reproduction. These notwithstanding, the prevailing notion of the Last Judgment during the Middle Ages understood God as a great puzzle master. At the Second Coming the dead would rise—decomposed, fragmented, turned to dust, or scattered—to be reassembled and reconstituted. Following this, both the living and the resurrected were to be judged (Bynum 1991, 267). This apocalyptic doctrine, however, went beyond the purely conceptual; it held ramifications for the world of the living, which were applied specifically (and creatively) to funerary practices and regulations.

Saints, Relics, and the Division of the Body

Given the doctrine of reassemblage, even if the physical body were of prime importance for the Last Judgment, its compositional state after death was not (Bynum 1991, 268). Accordingly, moving bodies, often reduced to bones through decomposition, from the churchyard to catacombs, crypts, or charnel houses was widely practiced with little regard paid to their unity or identification (Bynum 1995, 203-204). Yet, this does not mean that the Church was indifferent to the treatment of the dead. It also prescribed strict limits for what it viewed as the proper and improper handling of the deceased.

Such a need was in part a response to the emergence of novel burial practices. The 11th–14th centuries saw a rise in interest in dividing up the dead after burial as part of the funerary process (Brown 1981, 224-225, 267). Inspired by the division of saints and their relic-based cults, this was equally predicated on the Last Judgment teaching of God’s awesome power to locate and reassemble fragmented bodies. In Northern Europe, in particular, the custom of dismembering the body and burying it at several locations, some parts in the proximity of saints (burial ad sanctos), others near relatives, and still others at monasteries or churches to be prayed over, was practiced not only by the lower nobility but by kings and queens of England, France, and Germany as well (Bynum 1991, 269-270; 1995, 293; Brown 1981, 233). The practice began in the 11th century on the pragmatic grounds of facilitating the return of the bodies of those who had died far from their lands and estates, while participating, for instance, in the Crusades (Brown 1981, 226-228). The body was prepared mos teutonicus (“in the manner of the Germans”) and included the corpse’s evisceration, de-fleshing through boiling in wine or water, and finally its dismemberment (Bynum 1991, 203-206; Park 1995, 112).

Not all embraced this trend. In 1299, Pope Boniface VIII, alarmed that one of his cardinals had made provision for such a burial, issued the papal bull Detestande Feritatis (known also as De Sepulturis) decrying the practice and excommunicating those who followed the burial method (Bynum 1991, 269-270; Park 1995, 113, 115; Brown 1981, 221-223, 248). Instead, Boniface VIII insisted on simple burials near the place of death with the body intact (Brown 1981, 221-222). Boniface based his view on the fact that division was unprecedented in the burials not only of Church fathers but of Jesus himself (Brown 1981, 241-243). The paradox of Pope Boniface’s position, in light of relic-based saint worship, is clear (Park 1995, 113), yet a blind eye was cast in that direction in the interest of promoting piety (Bynum 1991, 263). 


Figure 6: This copper and enamel reliquary, made during the thirteenth century in Limoges, France, was intended for the veneration of a saint's relics. The front features the images of six saints. On exhibit in Glencairn Museum’s Medieval Treasury (05.EN.111).


Figure 7: This thirteenth-century enamel reliquary from Limoges, France, originally contained a fragment of the body of Saint Thomas Becket. On exhibit in Glencairn Museum’s Medieval Treasury (05.EN.112).


The veneration of saints’ relics (Figures 6-7), which inspired ad sanctos burials, draws attention to the numinous relationship each body part held in connection to the whole. In the case of saints, the whole of the saint was manifest in each part, even the minutest, from which emanated a heavenly power capable of miracles (Bynum 1991, 280). Yet, it was not only the saint’s power that resided in each divided body part, but rather the saint’s essential being as well (Bynum 1991, 254, 285; 1995, 204-205). Interestingly, this coincided with village-level folk belief, which held that the self continued to survive within the dead body for a period of time after death (Bynum 1991, 266; Park 1995, 117-118, 119, 126, 130; Brown 1981, 223, 266-267). This belief engendered anxiety that the dead might return as revenants, vampires, or evil spirits (Park 1995, 117). Should that occur, special measures could be enacted which, according to folk belief, included disinterment, decapitation, and cremation (see: Ström 1942, 167-171). In contrast to saints, therefore, a revenant’s power ceased with dismemberment rather than being amplified, a circumstance that further underscores the thesis argued in Last Judgment depictions; namely, the victory over fragmentation for the glorified and, conversely, the vanquishing of the damned through their dismemberment and utter destruction. Indeed, manuals for inquisitors such as that for Carcassonne, France of 1248-49 stipulate that the bones of posthumously convicted heretics were to be dug up and burned (in: Wakefield 1974, 257). This was not a purely theoretical prescription. The French inquisitor Bernard Gui (d. 1331) exhumed and obliterated the remains of heretics on sixty-six occasions (Elliott 2017, 1052-1053).


Given the importance of the body in the medieval formulation of the Last Judgment, a phenomenon traceable in art and thought, it is little wonder that the Church laid the utmost importance on its proper burial and treatment. Exotic burial methods involving division of the body or cremation were forbidden. Rather, all Christians, barring the excommunicated, were to lie intact in the consecrated ground of the churchyard, duly catalogued among other Christians, their bodies oriented towards the East in anticipation of Christ’s return from that direction as foretold in Scripture (Matthew 24:27). The observance of proper funeral rites applied even to parts of the body, for instance, in cases of shipwreck where only a hand, foot, or other piece washed up from the sea. These, too, so long as they had belonged to a Christian, were to be accorded funeral rites. Each part represented the whole and vice versa. God, at the time of resurrection, would reassemble each person entirely, drawing together every scattered particle or remnant, and reconstruct the whole. Indeed, theologians and canon lawyers carefully considered a variety of scenarios and the spiritual ramifications of action or inaction, while at the local level priests saw to their pastoral duty and the proper handling of the dead. After all, when it came to providing for the eternal soul in anticipation of its resurrection at the Last Judgment, every Christian body ought to be properly laid to rest.3

Sean Lawing, PhD
Assistant Professor of History

Bryn Athyn College

Photography courtesy of Edwin Herder.


1 E.g. I Corinthians 15:1-54; Luke 21:18.

2 For example, in medieval Iceland’s earliest Church laws in Grágás (Finsen Ia 1852, 34).

3 The Roman Catholic Church continues to provide for the burial of limbs and body parts, though without performing funeral rites. Related to eschatological beliefs, it was only in 1963 and Vatican II that cremation was permitted, though with reservations (Canon 1176, §3). An explicit ban on cremation—including that of amputated limbs—was previously put in place by papal decrees and canons in 1886 (i.e. Canon 1203, §1; 1240, and 1212) due to a rise in interest as a burial method fostered by dissenting and pro-cremation groups (see: Ameskamp 2008, 102-105).


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