Author: Niamh Bhalla
Experiencing the Last Judgement opens up new ways of understanding a Byzantine image type that has hitherto been considered largely uniform in its manifestations and to a great extent frightening, coercive and paralysing. It moves beyond a purely didactic understanding of the Byzantine image of the Last Judgement, as a visual eschatological text to be ‘read’ and learned from, and proposes instead an appreciation of each unique image as a dynamic site to be experienced. Paintings, icons and mosaics from the tenth to the fourteenth century, from inside and outside of the Byzantine Empire, are placed within their specific socio-historical milieus, their immediate decorative programmes and their architectural contexts to demonstrate that each unique image constituted a carefully orchestrated and immersive experience of judgement. Each case study outlines the differences that exist in reality between these images that are often subsumed under one iconographic label, making a case against condensing dynamic, lived images into apparently static pictorial ‘types’. Images of the Last Judgement needed the body, mind and memory of the viewer for the creation of meaning, and so the experience of these images was unavoidably spatial, gendered, corporeal, mnemonic, emotional, rhetorical and most often liturgical. Unpacking Byzantine images of judgement in light of these various facets of experience for the first time helps to elucidate the interaction of past individuals with the image, and the ways in which such encounters were intended to benefit the communities that made and lived alongside them.