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Rogier van der Weyden, Last Judgment

Rogier van der Weyden, Last Judgment, 1443-51, oil on panel, 215 x 560 cm (Musée de l'Hôtel Dieu, Beaune). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker Visit Smarthistory.org for more art history videos.

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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    This could be my imagination, but one of the female figures on the "damned" side seems to have more of a belly than the female figure on the "blessed" side. She couldn't be pregnant perhaps, could she? Could an unborn child be considered one of the "damned"? I would hope not!
    (3 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Yulia
    What is written on the right from Christ, on the "damned" side?
    (2 votes)
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  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Varick Santana
    What is the motivation behind an artist of the northern renaissance to paint the annunciation in stone sculptures?
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Shari Welch
      There are other altarpieces that have stone sculptures very similar to this - the Ghent Altarpiece is one. It's interesting, because at the time, sculpture was usually painted, not left plain stone. However, artists like Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck painted actual stone sculptures as part of their repertoire, as well as painting panels. Perhaps they liked the plain stone (like we have come to prefer in modern times) and started a trend of representing them this way. The painted stone sculptures always seem to be saints that the donors are praying to.
      (2 votes)
  • duskpin tree style avatar for user mnlydiao
    It is interesting to notice the ratio of men and women on the blessed and damned sides of the painting. On the blessed side 3 out of 11 are women which is around 37% and on the damned side 7 out of 17 are women which is closer to 40%.
    So there are more men than women going into both heaven and hell but the percentage of women going to hell is higher what does this mean?
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user 😊
      It means that (1.) your math might be wrong - (2.) you made a typo in the 1st calculation, closer to only 27% - or (3.) The artist highly favored men & took artistic license. Back in those days, equality of the sexes was not in fashion. Male artists were in the great majority, only a few female artists of that time are known today.
      (2 votes)

Video transcript

(light piano music) - [Voiceover] We're in the town of Beaune, in the Hotel-Dieu, in a very dark room, where they've moved the altarpiece, by Rogier van der Weyden, of the Last Judgment. Now, this originally stood in the hospital room, where the sick would be cared for, and they could look through a screen during Mass, and see this altarpiece, a really appropriate subject for those who were ill, and who were, many of them, near death. - [Voiceover] Right, one went to the hospital to die. - [Voiceover] At least, in the 15th century, you did. Now, this was a hospital, commissioned by the Chancellor, for the Duke of Burgundy. - [Voiceover] This was a very powerful position. He was, in a sense, a lawyer, and it's appropriate, then, the subject of this panel, not on the outside, but when we open it up, and we are confronted with this magnificent interior. - [Voiceover] And Rolin commissioned this entire building, and this polyptic by Rogier van der Weyden, in the hope that it would gain him his own salvation. Right now we're looking at the back of the altarpiece, or what you would have seen when the altar was closed. - [Voiceover] It's interesting, 'cause the outside, the exterior, is really the worldly. It is our world. The exterior shows six panels. At the top, we have the Annunciation. We see the Archangel Gabriel, on the left. We see the Virgin Mary, interrupted in her prayer, on the right. - [Voiceover] The moment when God is made flesh, when salvation becomes possible, for mankind, and below that, two grisaille, or painted in grey, images of saints, on the left, Saint Sebastian, and on the right, Saint Anthony. Both associated with healing and illness. - [Voiceover] And then on the outer panels, we actually see the patrons. We see Rolin on the left, and his wife on the right. In both cases, there are angels in back of them, that hold their respective coats of arms. - [Voiceover] And the figures are painted with exactitude, that we always see in the Northern Renaissance. We get the sense that this is exactly what Nicolas Rolin looked like. - [Voiceover] When the panels are opened, we have a painting that is 18 feet wide, and we have at the top, Christ in majesty, Christ as judge. - [Voiceover] Seated on a rainbow, and what's so wonderful is that he's actually seated on it. His knees are foreshortened and come towards us. - [Voiceover] He seems to balance, although, his feet are on a beautifully rendered golden orb, which is bejeweled. - [Voiceover] A symbol of power. - [Voiceover] Now, below Christ, who is the ultimate judge of heaven, and remember, that Rolin is a kind of lawyer, and so this notion of justice is very much a part of his life. And we see another rendering of justice, just below Christ. We see the Archangel Michael, who's beautifully rendered in white, with wings that seem to be the wings of peacocks, and we see him holding this magnificent scale. In the bowls of that scale, we see naked figures. Those are meant to represent souls, and we see that the soul on our right is heavier. He's weighed down by sin. And so this man is going to Hell. And on our left, we see Michael holding a figure who is blessed, who is going to Heaven, who's lighter, and so that extends to the left and the right. On the left, those who are rising up toward Heaven, and on the right, the damned, who move toward the right corner, toward the fires of Hell. - [Voiceover] It's interesting, there's nothing that's compelling those figures to go to Hell, but they seem to, in their terror, run towards that fiery abyss. - [Voiceover] Although, some of them do seem to be being pulled by their hair into the fires of Hell. - [Voiceover] They're screaming as they go. Whereas on the left, we see a representation of the gate of Heaven, and we see an angel, perhaps Michael again, who's escorting the blessed into the Kingdom of God. - [Voiceover] What we really notice is the frontality of Michael and of Christ, that sense that there is no bargaining, here. This is justice, it's being meted out, there's no wavering, no discussion, one is either on Christ's right, as the blessed, or on Christ's left, as the damned. - [Voiceover] There are more damned than blessed. It's interesting, this Northern style of precision, of exactitude, in the rendering of the physical, that is so much a part of the work of Rogier van der Weyden, plays into that idea of the absoluteness. Everything is verifed through its visual accuracy. - [Voiceover] That's made even more clear by that heavenly gold background. - [Voiceover] Well, it's interesting, because so often in early painting, we see a gold background. We see the light of heaven. But it tends to be a flat background. But here, it's clouds, with volume, and it almost seems like the fiery colors of a sunset, that the clouds of the sky, and so we have this heavenly light, yes, but it's also in some ways, more of the natural world, as well. On either side of Michael, we see four smaller angels in this beautiful purplish-red, and they're blowing their golden trumpets, announcing the end of time, but also waking the dead. - [Voiceover] On either side of Christ, are also symbols of what's happening here. On our left, Christ's right, with the blessed, the lilies, a sense of mercy, and then on our right, or Christ's left, the sword of justice. - [Voiceover] Christ is neither looking left nor right. He looks directly out at us, judging us. - [Voiceover] On the other hand, he also makes a gesture of blessing, he looks out at us, but there's also something reassuring. - [Voiceover] Only if you're looking to his right hand, but if you look to his left, he seems to also be condemning the damned into hell. - [Voiceover] And we can clearly see Christ's wounds on his feet, his own suffering, for the sins of mankind. (light jazzy piano music)