Rogier van der Weyden, The Last Judgment

Christ presides over Heaven, seated on a rainbow and looking directly at us. But is he blessing or judging?

Rogier van der Weyden, Last Judgment, 1443–51, oil on panel, 215 x 560 cm (Musée de l’Hôtel-Dieu, Beaune)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in the town of Beaune, in the Hôtel-Dieu, in a very dark room where they’ve moved the altarpiece by Roger van der Weyden of the Last Judgment.

[0:15] Now, this originally stood in the hospital, 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.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:28] Right, one went to the hospital to die.

Dr. Harris: [0:31] At least in the 15th century you did. Now, this was a hospital commissioned by the chancellor for the Duke of Burgundy.

Dr. Zucker: [0:38] This was a very powerful position. He was, in a sense, a lawyer. 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.

Dr. Harris: [0:51] Rolin commissioned this entire building and this polyptych 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.

Dr. Zucker: [1:06] It’s interesting, because the outside, the exterior, is 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.

Dr. Harris: [1:21] The moment when God is made flesh, when salvation becomes possible for mankind. Below that, two grisaille — or painted in gray — images of saints. On the left, Saint Sebastian, and on the right, Saint Anthony, both associated with healing and illness.

Dr. Zucker: [1:37] 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.

Dr. Harris: [1:47] The figures are painted with the exactitude that we always see in the Northern Renaissance. We get the sense that this is exactly what Nicolas Rolin looked like.

Dr. Zucker: [1:56] When the panels are opened, we have a painting that is 18 feet wide. We have, at the top, Christ in majesty, Christ as judge.

Dr. Harris: [2:06] Seated on a rainbow. What’s so wonderful is that he’s actually seated on it. His knees are foreshortened and come towards us.

Dr. Zucker: [2:14] He seems to balance, although his feet are on a beautifully rendered golden orb, which is bejeweled.

Dr. Harris: [2:20] A symbol of power.

Dr. Zucker: [2:22] Now, below Christ, who is the ultimate judge of heaven — remember that Rolin is a kind of lawyer, and so this notion of justice is very much a part of his life — we see another rendering of justice below Christ.

[2:35] We see the Archangel Michael, who’s beautifully rendered in white, with wings that seem to be the wings of peacocks. We see him holding this magnificent scale. In the bowls of that scale we see naked figures. Those are meant to represent souls. We see that the soul on our right is heavier. He’s weighed down by sin, and so this man is going to hell.

Dr. Harris: [2:58] On our left we see Michael holding a figure who is blessed, who is going to heaven, who’s lighter. That extends to the left and the right.

[3:07] On the left, those who are rising up toward heaven. On the right, the damned who move toward the right corner, toward the fires of hell.

Dr. Zucker: [3:15] It’s interesting. There’s nothing that’s compelling those figures to go to hell. They seem to, in their terror, run towards that fiery abyss.

Dr. Harris: [3:23] Although some of them do seem to be being pulled by their hair into the fires of hell.

Dr. Zucker: [3:27] 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.

Dr. Harris: [3:38] 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.

Dr. Zucker: [3:56] There are more damned than blessed. It’s interesting. This northern style of precision, of the 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 verified through its visual accuracy.

Dr. Harris: [4:14] That’s made even more clear by that heavenly gold background.

Dr. Zucker: [4:18] 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.

[4:26] Here, it’s clouds with volume. It almost seems like the fiery colors of a sunset, the clouds of the sky. We have this heavenly light, yes, but it’s also in some ways more of the natural world as well.

[4:39] 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.

Dr. Harris: [4:51] 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 symbol of mercy. Then on our right, or Christ’s left, the sword of justice.

Dr. Zucker: [5:06] Christ is neither looking left nor right. He looks directly out at us, judging us.

Dr. Harris: [5:12] On the other hand, he also makes a gesture of blessing. He looks out at us, but there’s also something reassuring.

Dr. Zucker: [5:18] 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.

Dr. Harris: [5:24] And we can clearly see Christ’s wounds on his feet, his own suffering for the sins of mankind.

[5:29] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Rogier van der Weyden, The Last Judgment," in Smarthistory, November 18, 2015, accessed June 13, 2024,