Today we will take a look at the icon type of the Terrible Judgment. Some versions are simple, others, like this one, more complex. This example bears the title inscription OBRAZ STRASHNAGO SUDA BOZHIYA — “Image of the Terrible Judgment of God.”
In the discussion today we will look at elements both from that icon and from another similarly complex but slightly different example. We will begin with the icon shown below, which bears the longer title inscription VTOROE PRISHESTVIE GOSPODA NASHEGO IISUSA KHRISTA SUDITI ZHIVUIM I MERTVUIM — “The Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ to Judge the Living and the Dead.”
The iconography of the “Terrible Judgment” comes from both the New and Old Testaments, primarily from the Apocalypse (“Revelation of John”) and the book of Daniel. It also uses elements from Patristic tradition, etc.
Let’s look at the upper segment:
In the center circle sits enthroned Lord Sabaoth, God the Father represented as an old man. The Holy Spirit as a dove is just to the left of his head. Ranks of angels are in the circle around him. To his left is the Heavenly Jerusalem and the Righteous seated at banquet tables within it. To the right of the central circle two angels hold a scroll upon which are the sun and moon. This represents the heavens being “rolled up like a scroll” at the end of the world. Below that, Jesus, in a cloudy mandorla approaches God the Father before going to preside over the Last Judgment. In the smaller circle at right, we see “war in Heaven,” with the good angels defeating and casting out the evil angels.
Let’s move down to the next segment:
In the central circle Jesus is enthroned as the Judge. To the left of the circle stands Mary, and to the right John the Forerunner (the Baptist); they are interceding with Jesus, asking mercy for humanity. Just below Mary kneels the “first man” Adam (according to the Genesis story) and kneeling below John the Forerunner is the “first woman” Eve.
Standing at left and right are angels, and seated below the angels are the Twelve Apostles, who take part in the judgment, holding opened books.
Now to the next segment:
At center two angels stand by the altar table, the “Throne” of judgment, on which are placed the spear, sponge, and cross of the Passion of Christ, with the book containing the record of the good and bad deeds of humans, and also on the table is the “garment of Christ”; just below, a great hand — the “Hand of God” — holds a scale suspended, weighing the good and bad deeds of humans. This is an ancient notion that can be traced to ancient Egyptian art and belief, in which the “heart” of the dead was weighed against a feather, representing righteousness, “truth.”
Held in the curved fingers of the great Hand of God are souls of the righteous.
At left is a crowd of Eastern Orthodox, while at right, just beyond the Old Testament Prophet Moses, is a group of “Heterodox,” those with other beliefs.
Here is the central image:
It depicts a great serpent, representing Sin, which twists all the way from Hell up to the altar “Throne.” All along it are rings that represent the tollhouses of the afterlife, places high in the air where the soul of the departed is examined by demons for various sins, each of which is represented by a different tollhouse circle. If the soul has committed that sin but has not sufficiently repented and does not have the defense of angels and the prayers of the living, it is taken to Hades for punishment. This serpent with tollhouses apparently began appearing in Russian icons of the “Terrible Judgment” in the latter part of the 1400s; previously it was absent.
The notion of stages of examination of the soul after death also comes from ancient Egyptian belief, in which the soul was examined by 42 judges, each for one of 42 different misdeeds, before the weighing of the heart in the balance. The early Gnostics had a belief that the soul, in order to reach the divine Pleroma (“Fullness”) after death, had to rise through the air and get past the seven hostile archons (“rulers”), which were derived from the seven planets (the moon and sun were numbered among the planets, though only five were known then).
Here is a detail from the first icon above, showing the weighing of the soul’s bag of good deeds against his bad, with little red devils doing their best to weigh down the scale in the favor of evil:
For comparison, here is an ancient Egyptian depiction of the weighing of the heart:
The figure at left is Anubis, a god of the afterlife. At right is the god Thoth, scribe of the Underworld, ready to record the results. The monster by the scale waits to eat the heart if the result is unfavorable. The heart is in the scale at left (in a jar), and in the pan on the right is the feather of Truth.
But back to the Russian type:
In the circle at left, the Prophet Daniel is shown a vision of the Four Kingdoms, represented by the animals in the pinkish circle at upper right. In the large circle at right, earth and sea give up their dead. In the following image (from the first icon above) a lion coughs up people he has eaten as a man at right rises from his tomb
The rings on the serpent are inscribed with the names of sins.
In another detail from the first icon, fish vomit up the people they have eaten:
On to the next segment:
At left, Mary is seatied between two angels. In the upper circle at right as already mentioned, are the animal symbols of the four kingdoms seen in the Old Testament vision of Daniel, and at right earth and water giving up their dead.
Here is the bottom segment:
At right, the Devil is seated on a monster in Hell, bearing the naked soul of Judas Iscariot on his lap. Judas is holding the bag of silver he received for betraying Jesus. Here is a detail of that from the first icon above:
Below him are subterranean chambers with condemned souls being tortured for various sins. At center is a figure naked except for a loincloth, and bound to a pillar. At left the righteous stand at the Gates of Paradise, beyond which are seen the Repentant Thief Rakh inside Paradise, and seated there are the Old Testament Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You will recall them from the icon type of the “Forefathers in Paradise,” as seen in this detail from the first icon above. Each holds a crowd of righteous souls against his bosom:
In the right side panel we see angels casting “dark angels” out of Heaven and into the fiery Hell below.
In the left panel we see monks, given wings and flying up to heaven.
We can finish this discussion of the iconography of the “Terrible Judgment” with a closer look at the odd little figure in the center of the bottom segment. Naked except for a cloth about his waist, he is bound to a pillar. Placed outside the punishments of Hell, he is also outside the joys of Paradise. He is the so-called “Gracious Fornicator” ( Милостивый блудник/Milostivuiy Bludnik):
His story comes not from the Old or New Testament, nor even from the Apocrypha. Instead, it is found in the old Russian Prologue (Greek Synaxarion), an account of Church Saints and festivals, under August 12th.
There it is said that in Constantinople, during the reign of Emperor Leo the Isaurian, there was a wealthy man who was very active in charitable donations to the the poor. But it seems he had a great deal of trouble “keeping it in his pants,” as the saying goes. He spent much of his life having repeated sex without benefit of marriage.
When this charitable man died, there was a lot of speculative discussion; Herman, Patriarch of Constantinople, and other bishops conversed and discussed, trying to decide what the fate of this man in the afterlife would be, if he would be “saved” or not. They could not agree on whether he would go to Paradise for his good deeds, or to Hell because of his fondness for sex. Finally the matter was settled when a hermit, after much prayer, supposedly had a vision of the fellow’s fate. He said that he saw the man tied to a pillar between Paradise and the flames of Hell, and the man was bitterly weeping. An angel appeared and told the bound man that because of his charitable deeds he was spared from Hell, but because of his repeated sex outside marriage, he was also excluded from Paradise. The Patriarch used this as an object lesson to show that people should avoid extramarital sex.