Those of us who have visited very old Churches or have an interest in early art may already be familiar with depictions of the Last Judgement. Of these "Paintings of Doom," one of the most spectacular may be found in the church of St Thomas and St Edmund in the English Wiltshire City of Salisbury.
I discovered this medieval wall painting quite by chance. There was a heavy rainstorm, and since the bus to take me home wasn't due for another half hour, I sought shelter in a church. On entering that building, quite unexpectedly, some medieval artist completely blew my mind!
A huge brightly coloured fresco completely dominated the chancel arch and surrounding walls. This late medieval masterpiece had been commissioned some time between 1470 and 1500 by a grateful pilgrim. At the time of his gift England was bitterly and brutally divided. Rival claimants for the Crown brought terror and much suffering during these Wars of the Roses. During those tumultuous times, where secular authorities were in turmoil, it must have been immensely reassuring that in religion the country was united, under the oversight of Rome. Confronted by this forceful representation of Christian theology, a largely illiterate population were now to be left in no doubt of the power and decisiveness of God.
As the Reformation swept across Europe, the fresco in St Thomas and St Edmund's Church was to be one of a great many covered over. For centuries afterwards its congregation worshipped without the distraction of religious imagery. In 1819 however traces of paint were discovered. As the whitewash was gradually removed, a glorious and uncompromising Christ in his Majesty was once again revealed, in the company of saints, apostles, and an angelic host, to judge the souls of the dead.
These days it would seem as if our relationship with God may be compared to our attitude towards the European Union or other International alliances. In these arrangements there is generally understood to be a distinct good side associated with peace, mutual support, material benefits and a principle of generally loving each other. At the same time however there is also that uncomfortable feeling of not being entirely in control of your own destiny, wishing to maintain your independence and fears that a disproportion of benefits would seem to be going to others. Instead of accepting God's authority, we try to negotiate our position. Our preference is for love, light, and that certain feel-good factor, whilst the perception of power, judgement and Christ seated at a very much higher level is so often greeted with dismay. To the modern mind, those Salisbury parishioners view on the Day of judgement theme was probably a false alarm. Through pride the God we select becomes less conscientious about justice, subject to evolution and not quite so powerful as we thought. Through asserting our independence we become that bit less secure.
Before Quakers take out that tin of whitewash to enthusiastically obliterate the past, I think it may be helpful to revisit that painting. Confronted by doom, we are mindful that it has never been possible to represent God. Instead of even attempting to do so, it would seem to me that this image of Christ sitting in judgement is to be used as a mirror, so that human beings of all generations may gain a greater understanding of themselves.
To me, the use of judgement as a theme is not an attempt to predict the future, or even provide us with a stern warning. It is also not a question of getting the right theological answer as if at some point St Peter will greet us at the pearly gates with a knowing wink, saying " I got there pretty close to first. Very nice to see that in these difficult theological questions, you've also cracked the code." Neither do I think it a matter of adding up all the good points once you have lived your life.
Instead, it would seem to me that judgement is a process that is going on all the time. This Doom painting tells us about our power because with each moment and each choice, we may become ugly little devils, or else one with the angels. Intead of being terrified by this picture, Salisbury parishioners might well well be acting like football supporters trying to spot themselves in a club photograph of the crowd. They might ask a friend "Can you see me? I'm the one doing greed.....or lust.....” then think for a bit and confess “It's not a very flattering picture!"
For today's multi-cultural society, I think it is important to recognise that although Medieval Doom paintings originate from an exclusively Christian Society this does not mean that God's will may only be communicated through one faith or religion. To me, the Doom Pictures apply to the whole of humanity. God is decisive in determining the difference between good and evil. By choosing to be like the angels, we accept a responsibility to act according to our best understanding of the truth from whichever source that may be.