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Last Judgment Tympanum, Cathedral of St. Lazare, Autun

Last Judgment Tympanum, Central Portal on West facade of the Cathedral of St. Lazare, Autun, c. 1130-46. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
(piano playing) Dr. Zucker: The prospect of spending an eternity in Hell is terrifying even in the abstract, but to be confronted with images that depict this must have really scared the medieval mind. Dr. Harris: We're looking up at the doorway of the Cathedral of Autun which represents, I think, the most terrifying image of The Last Judgement, of the damned in Hell that exists in art history. Dr. Zucker: Of course it also includes Heaven, but I think people were, probably, spending much more time looking and fearing Hell. This is a sculpture that is one of the first monumental sculptures to be made in the Medieval period. There had been, of course, monumental sculpture in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome but after the 5th Century or so, monumental sculpture really fell away and this has been part because of the economic and political chaos of the Medieval Period. It's at this time, around 1000 or just after that things begin to stabilize. Dr. Harris: There's an enormous building boom of churches in Europe during this time and we begin to see monumental sculpture on the doorways of churches and inside the churches on the Capitals. Dr. Zucker: We have this magnificent new cathedral at Autun and it's important to remember that this was because of the relics that were here. Dr. Harris: Pilgrims were traveling all over Europe during this period to visit the relics, the parts of saints, in this case, here at Autun the bones of St. Lazarus; each church had relics. Dr. Zucker: The relics were extremely important. It was believed that they could heal the sick, that could offer blessings that might even shorten ones time in purgatory if you came and paid homage to them, if you prayed to them. Dr. Harris: Often churches were refurbished or special reliquaries were made to house those relics, but in the case of Autun, this church was built specifically to house the relics of St. Lazarus. They built a whole church for their relics. Dr. Zucker: Of course there's the spiritual dimension, but there's also an economic dimension, these relics were economic engines for a community because you had these pilgrims come in, they needed to stay in inn's, they needed to eat, there was a real economic prosperity that surrounded important relics. That's certainly the case here. If you think about Lazarus, the person who's bones are within the church, this is the brother of Mary Magdalene who Christ brought back to life, according to the New Testament. This is about rebirth, about a kind of hope after death. Of course, that is the subject of The Last Judgement. Dr. Harris: So we imagine the faithful looking up at this doorway reading the sermon in stone, as Bernard of Clairvaux said, the story of The Last Judgement, people were illiterate, this was how they learned these stories. Dr. Zucker: The images really were text and we are meant to read them, so let's go ahead and do exactly that. Dr.Harris: So, we have the most obvious figure, Christ in the center. He's bigger than everybody else. Dr. Zucker: This is a kind of heiratic organization, the most important figure is largest by far. He's so flat, he's so linear, and there's no concern with the proportions of his body. Dr. Harris: He's elongated and we see lines that are carved into the stones to indicate these repeated folds of drapery. Dr. Zucker: There's real concern with the decorative. Dr. Harris: He's frontal, he's symmetrical, he's this divine figure who stares out in judgement. Dr. Zucker: He stares out past us as if he's on a plan that is completely different from ours. He sits on a throne that is the city of Heaven and you can make out the little arched windows both below his feet and as if it was actually the furniture that he sits upon. Of course that's a literal reading and this is meant to be metaphoric. His hands and his halo and his feet break the mandorla. This almond shape that completely encloses his body and is meant to function as almost a kind of a full body halo, a representation of his divinity. Dr. Harris: There are four angels that surround him that seem to be ushering him forward. Dr. Zucker: They also are literally holding up the Mandorla as if this divine light that surrounds Christ has weight. Dr. Harris: And like Christ, those angels are also elongated, their bodies move and twist in these wonderful ways. Dr. Zucker: There is this incredible expressiveness. Dr. Harris: We read images of The Last Judgement thinking about Christ's left and Christ's right. On Christ's left are the damned, going to Hell and on his right are the blessed who've been selected for Heaven. Dr. Zucker: On Christ's right, at the top, we see the Virgin Mary who's enthroned in Heaven. There's an angel next to her. Dr. Harris: Blowing a trumpet to awaken the dead and to announce the coming of Christ. Dr. Zucker: We can see the architecture of Heaven itself with some blessed souls within it. We can see angels, as well, assisting the blessed into Heaven. It's interesting to note that souls are represented as nude figures. Dr. Harris: One of the most famous parts of this Tympanum is the figure of St. Michael who is weighing souls, a demon seems to be trying to tip the scales in favor of those who have sinned so they can get more souls for Hell. Dr. Zucker: It's so interesting to think about this literal representation of the weighing of souls, that morality has gravity in some way. Dr. Harris: Look at that figure who hides in the drapery, those curling, lovely swirls of drapery of St. Michael. That figure is so different from the figures to the right who are being pulled up by hooks, by a demon, into the fires of Hell who have realized that they're going to spend eternity being tortured. Dr. Zucker: It's pretty bad. Dr. Harris: It's terrifying. Dr. Zucker: I find the demons much more interesting. Their mouths are gaping open, they look just ravenous as if they're ready to eat those souls. They've got claws, there's a three headed serpent wrapping around the legs of one of the devils. There really are images of horror here. Dr. Harris: There's an inscription right below the figures that make this point exactly. It reads, "May this terror terrify those whom earthly "error bind, for the horror of these images here "in this manor truly depicts what will be." In the Medieval mind there is no doubt this will happen and where will you be when this happens? Dr. Zucker: And don't look to Christ because Christ is looking past us, it's too late. So, let's move down then to the area that's closest to us that speaks to this issue of which side will we be on. The Tympanum itself is that Lunett, it's that half circle, but it's supported by a long cross beam which is called a Lintel. This is the moment when the dead are lifted out of their graves, are resurrected to be judged. This is kind of a line, waiting, for the judgement. Dr. Harris: They're literally, at this moment, emerging from their tombs. Dr. Zucker: You can see the sarcophagi at their feet. I see an angel that is clearly helping one soul, but on either side there are two other souls who seem to desperately clutch at that angel hoping that he'll bring them along as well. As we move to the center, things almost seem to become a little less certain. You can see two people purses, one with a cross, one with a scalloped shell. This would be a reference to pilgrims who had perhaps gone to Jerusalem, who had perhaps gone to Spain trying to visit important relics so that they might be among the blessed. Dr. Harris: Right, to improve their chances of getting into Heaven. Dr. Zucker: And if you didn't thing would not always work out well. Dr. Harris: And so we see exactly that. Directly below Christ we see an angel wielding a sword toward a terrified figure, who, with his eyes bulging, seems to try to move away from the angel. Dr. Zucker: And in fact everybody who's in front of the angel looks absolutely terrified. Look at the figure that is kneeling, clutching the sides of his head, almost as if he's saying, "How could this be true? How can it "have come to this?" Dr. Harris: If you continue to bring your eye toward the right we see figures who are contorted in this recognition of their fate in Hell. They bend their knees, they form angular shapes with their bodies, compressed as though they're being crushed into Hell. It's incredibly expressive in their bodies. Dr. Zucker: Dramatic, absolutely, but probably nothing is more dramatic than the realization on the face of the soul who's head is being clutched by two enormous claws; the hands presumably of a devil who's being plucked up into Hell. Dr. Harris: You can see that the sculptor carved the eyes deeply, carved the open mouth deeply so that we get a sense of his, almost, primal scream. Our historian's have interpreted an inscription on the doorway which reads, "Gislebertus hoc fecit," Gislebertus made this as being an inscription referring to the sculptor himself. Dr. Zucker: That would be extremely unusual. In the modern era we associate artwork with the genius of the individual, but in the Medieval Period artists were craftsman, artists were not seen as individual geniuses. So these objects were not signed. Dr. Harris: But it was so nice to imagine that we knew the name of the artist who did this. Dr. Zucker: There has been some new scholarship that suggests that perhaps we have been mislead and that Gislebertus is not actually the name of the artist. Dr. Harris: The recent scholarship suggests that Gislebertus is actually the name of a Duke who was associated with bringing the bones of St. Lazarus to Autun, so in a way, legitimizing this church as the rightful place for the bones of Lazarus. Dr. Zucker: But even if we don't know the name of the artist, we do know the power of his work. Dr. Harris: There's no doubt about that. (piano playing)