Jesus the Judge: Old English Poetry and Doom Paintings

Fra Angelico, Last Judgment, Panel Painting 1425-1430, source.

Welcome to the first week of the Lent series, “The Many Faces of Jesus.” Each week I will consider a medieval “version” of Jesus—a representation in literature, art, or theology popular before the Reformation. These versions of Jesus may be strange, silly, scary, or inspiring to us today; above all they challenge us to consider our own versions of Jesus we encounter in our culture. Many of them capture important aspects of Jesus and the church that we overlook. None of these episodes comprehensively present these images; think of them like little introductions that you can dive further into on your own. I hope that as we draw closer to Easter, their aesthetic beauty gives joy too.

The primary image of Jesus for all medieval people was Jesus on the Cross, the crucifix. But the next most popular image, which they would have seen every single time they walked into any English church, anywhere, was something called a Doom painting.

Here’s a fun little word history sidenote. When you think of Doomsday, you probably do think of the end of the world, like the Doomsday clock which counts down the danger of being destroyed by nuclear weapons, or like a dramatic moment in an action movie (“prepare to meet your doom!”). Doom carries a heavy connotation of impending dread today. It did then too. But it also had a more specific meaning. Doom is related to the word “deem,” which we still use today (albeit rarely). To deem is to judge. Doomsday literally means Judgment Day. These paintings depict Christ sitting in judgment at the fulfillment of history.

In every Doomsday painting, Jesus sits, huge in fear- and awe-inducing power, towering over the multitude who have gathered beneath him. In an extremely well-preserved Doom at St. Thomas’s Church in Salisbury, England, painted around 1470, Jesus sits upon a rainbow, with his feet on a smaller rainbow. He is the fulfiller of promises. On his right is Mother Mary, to his left John the Evangelist. Angels hover around him, sometimes holding the instruments of the crucifixion. Below Christ sit the twelve disciples.

St. Thomas’s Church, Salisbury, England, source.

Further below, the action of Doomsday really gets going. On one side, naked bodies emerge from the ground, helped out by angels. They are the dead, rising from the ground corpses and all, to join Jesus in heaven. On the other side, the dead also emerge from their burial sites. Yet they are being herded by devils into the Mouth of Hell. On both sides, they wear hats as signifiers of their profession. Damnation is equal opportunity: there are many kings, bishops and cardinals, judging by their hats, among the sinners herded into the flames. There are also laborers’ hats and many simply clutching their heads in shock on both sides. 

This subject, as I mentioned, was in every English church. If you lived 600 years ago, you would have looked at a Doom painting at least every week and likely more often than that. You would have gazed at Christ the Judge as you listened to the priest’s homily and watched him raise up the body of Christ. And recall, in a culture where literacy was not as universal as it is today, such pictures, alongside sermons and storytelling, made up a huge part of an ordinary layperson’s scriptural teaching. Doomsday loomed large in the medieval imagination and heavily influenced the shape of their idea of a Christian life and death. Today, I want to enter into these vivid representations of Jesus the Judge in Old English poetry. 

I am going to share with you part of an Old English poem from about the 10th century. The third of a series of poems all known as Crist, it appears in the Exeter Book, the largest known collection of Old English poetry. Old English is earlier than Middle English, the language that Geoffrey Chaucer and Julian of Norwich spoke and wrote. If you were to look at a page from The Canterbury Tales, you would find it difficult but could understand a good deal of it. If you were to look at the Exeter Book, you wouldn’t be able to read it at all. It resembles German or Dutch more than it looks like modern English. Old English was written and spoken before the Norman Invasion of 1066; it does not contain the influx of vocabulary from French and Latin into English that emerged over centuries from that event.

This translation of Crist III comes from the Rutgers Old English Project, managed by Dr. Aaron Hostetter. You can check it out at oldenglishpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu. 

Then suddenly upon Sion’s peak from the south-east 
the light of the sun shall come shining from the Shaper 
more brilliant that humans can perceive in their minds, 
blazing brightly, when the Child of God is revealed 
here through the vaults of heaven. 
The wonderful form of Christ shall come, 
the Noble-King’s face, eastwards from the skies, 
sweetly into the understanding of his own people, 
yet bitter to the baleful, marvelously flecked with beauty 
to the blessed, yet different altogether to the wretched. 
He shall be glad-hearted in sight to the good: 
beautiful and winsome to the holy multitudes, 
fair in his rejoicing, pleasant and gracious 
it will be for his beloved people to look upon 
that shining figure willingly, the sweet arrival 
of the Sovereign, the King of Powers, 
for those who had previously pleased him well 
in mind with their words and their works. 
To the evil he shall be terrifying and grim to see, 
to the sinful men who come forth condemned by their crimes. 
This can be a warning of retribution for those who 
have sagacious forethought—that he dreads nothing at all 
who does not become terrified at that visage, 
frightened in his soul, when he witnesses 
the presence of the Master of All Creation 
faring amid mighty marvels to judge the many, 
and on his every side a throng of heaven-angels 
revolving about him, a shoal of the ever-brilliant, 
armies of the hallowed, flocking in squadrons. (899-929)

I find these lines beautiful, powerful, but most of all, uncomfortable. The modern church (at least in the widely varying denominations I have attended myself) does not dwell too much on Judgment Day. It pops up every now and then in a sermon but usually is not the main topic. I read the Book of Revelation once in high school, then again in college. I decided that was sufficient. I know it’s there if I want to return to it.

Honestly, my main association with Jesus the Judge is from the unhinged street preacher at my undergraduate university, who would yell at eighteen-year-old girls wearing short shorts that they were whores whom Christ would damn forever on Judgment Day. It was a public university, so no one could really kick him out because of free speech. And it was always towards women that he directed his malice. So if you’re like me, the portrayal of Jesus the Judge and its medieval popularity presents an extra challenge.

The poem emphasizes the multifaceted aspects of Christ the Judge. To the blessed, he is “marvelously flecked with beauty,” winsome and joyful, fair in his rejoicing. To the baleful, the sight of him is bitter and grim. Truly, the Child of God is terrifying to both parties, in the immensity of his power and glory as the throngs of angels, “the shoal of the ever-brilliant,” flock in squadrons around him. 

There are multiple Old English poems about Jesus as Judge, and in each of them that I’ve read, he is commonly called “The Measurer.” The Measurer sits in judgment as humankind comes before him; in another wonderful phrase from the poem, they “bear their breast-hoard before the Child of God” (1072). In other words, each body comes before the Measurer with all their tender, bitter, miserable, precious secrets to bare before Him. Every unloving word, every knife-edged thought, every true gift of love and attention emerges from the “breast-hoard” of hearts and minds and comes to the light. They unfold like fabric for the shears; they tumble like wheat before the scythe. 

One factor that makes this version of Jesus unique is that we are all there too—us, the Middle English folks, the Old English folks, the whole of humanity. It is the end of the age, and all the bodies have come forth from their graves or the ocean or the dust to account. Unlike, say, a picture of the crucifixion, in which you can imagine yourself there but historically you’re certainly not there, such portrayals of Jesus the Judge implicitly include you, as a member of history at history’s denouement.

As a result, this version of Jesus also reminds us that our actions—our individual, random, intentional, loving, stupid, cruel, bland actions, conversations and thoughts—have consequences. Christ the Judge presides not only over the finale of history, but the fulfillment of justice. If we can focus on the figure of Christ at the center, and less on the people to the right and left of him, than perhaps we can think through this heavy consequential understanding of our actions without the fear, skepticism, or anger that this image may provoke in us. Medieval people were a lot more comfortable with using fear to motivate, and these works of art are meant to evoke fear in those listening and looking. I don’t care for that methodology, though I do believe it to be necessary at times when the stakes are very high (teaching a very young child not to run into the street, for instance). Does this poem fill you with terror and dread? Lead you to scoff at the naivete of medieval people? Make you wish you belonged to a different religion? Make you glad you do belong to a different religion? It directly challenges all of us in varying ways.

Which brings me to another important question: what can we today take from these poetic, ancient, intimidating portrayals of Jesus the Judge, these Doom paintings and Crist III? I want to set aside questions of salvation and damnation, since thankfully, those aren’t our purview here. I’m not a trained theologian nor a pastor so I’m certainly unqualified to tackle those. Though these portraits, literary and artistic, depict the saved and the damned, we can gratefully note that only Jesus sits in the Judgment Seat, not us. I want to focus on the aspects of Jesus and our understanding of him and ourselves that we can see through this dim, dark glass of history. 

These paintings and lyrics function as sledgehammers in their attempts to emphasize the utter, vast, world-ending power of Christ the Judge. In modernity, the utter efficaciousness and complete competency of his power and strength can get obscured. Implicitly, I feel about Jesus in the world the way I feel about the most competent person I know trying to solve the problems of the world. They may be a genius, but they still have profound limitations, like needing to sleep or understanding only a few sides of any story. Jesus is beyond the most successful, effective, capable, and competent person imaginable. Crist III and the Doom paintings remind us that the first and final word is Christ. We may imagine this final word to look different than medieval folks did, but in our own times, where I often feel like I live at the whims of good and bad government, billionaires, lobbyists, Big Tech, and all of the other overwhelmingly powerful forces in the world, the reminder that Jesus is actually the final word is very necessary for me. Note that the symbols of utmost worldly power congregate below him. Kings, popes, and cardinals, naked except for their hats, come face-to-face with something greater. Julian of Norwich reminds us of the difficulty of believing in his surpassing lovingkindness and power: “For some of us believe that God is almighty and can do all, and that he is all wisdom and knows all. But that he is all love and will do all, there we struggle” (chapter 73 of the Long Text, translation mine). In other words, theoretically we recognize God’s strength and power to do all, but it is very hard for us to believe that his love is so all-surpassing that he will do so—that he will indeed fulfill his promises of grace and love, everlasting justice and compassion.

The promise of everlasting justice and compassion is ultimately what Christ the Judge signifies. Theologically, there have been countless interpretations of what this final justice and mercy look like. You can dig into them if you like. The Bible offers multiple and sometimes seemingly contrary alternatives, not excluding even universal salvation in some verses in the New Testament. Christ the Judge reminds us that though we honestly do not know the exact form of Christ’s justice, it will not be cheap; it will inevitably satisfy the demand of true justice, a justice beyond human capability. Such a justice both comforts and frightens. It is beyond tit-for-tat, beyond a simple exchange of an eye for an eye, beyond even equality, which levels indiscriminately. And though we are not the judges, thank God, we must learn how to practice this true justice.

Today, American society simmers with varieties of rage that demand justice. Last summer we witnessed a boiling over of righteous anger caused by racial injustices, both past and present—injustices still not remedied. In January we witnessed a fury stoked white-hot by falsehood and racism itself that was frustratingly not countered by justice, instead sheltered with evasion and lies. The great stupidity inherent in much progressivism is that things will continue to improve inevitably as we learn more and know more, until we can fix the world through education and progressive political policy. Education is an obvious albeit complex good that everyone should work towards. But what we saw in 2020 undermines that idealized vision of the world. We saw a world that when confronted with a relatively easy way to prevent spread of a dangerous virus, chose personal comfort and then, pun intended, masked this choice with claims about individual liberty. We witnessed a society that when faced with the repeated violent deaths of young Black men committed by the institution, chose instead to hunker down and defend themselves rather than admit complicity in a deficient system. These catastrophes are profound failures of justice. 

When we think about justice, or the lack thereof, we might consider courts of law, the police, or governing bodies. Of course, these should be places of justice. However, as medieval people knew, justice is not primarily abstract. Justice is always relational, even personal. The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas defines justice as “a habit, whereby a person renders to each one his or her due by a constant and perpetual will” (ST II-II.58.1). The flexibility of this passage—some might grumpily call it vagueness—allows us to ponder how one person’s due might be different than another person’s, given their personal history and institutional history. Context matters very much. Aquinas also carefully explains why he adds “constant and perpetual will” into that definition. We are so often willing to render justice to one person, but not another, or in regards to one particular issue, but not the next. True justice does not waver. At times, the practice of justice will be profoundly personal, occurring in conversations face-to-face. In other moments, the practice of justice will be more impersonal, determined in voting booths or financial support. Yet, it will always be relational, determined by the needs of our communities large- and small-scale. Don’t forget where the Doom paintings were carefully placed: inside each parish church, the centers of relationship and community in every village and town.

So, confronted by the face of Justice in the form of Christ the Judge, viewers medieval and modern are challenged to practice justice and mercy themselves. One could listen to the Doom poem and think “I don’t want to discriminate against others because I don’t want to be a bad person/go to Hell.” However, when faced with Jesus on his rainbow throne, we must learn instead how to ask how each of us can render to the other person their due, as a fellow beloved child of God. This includes urgent questions about what the demands of justice look like for those oppressed for many years because of their race, gender, or sexuality. The Old English poem describes those who fall into Hell as “mind-blinded men, / harder than flints” (1187). Justice calls for us to reject the temptation to harden ourselves into stony, flintlike people, unheeding of the needs and histories of others.

These meditations on Jesus the Judge should leave you with more questions than answers. But I hope they are fruitful questions. Throughout this series, I will also leave you with a few questions to consider as part of your Lenten practice, if you wish to do so.

What appeals to you about the image of Jesus the Judge? What repels you? Why?

How can you incorporate practices to foster justice in your community this week, as in considering what we must render to one another as humans made in the image of God?

May we pursue justice and the sight of Jesus’s “winsome face” this week and always.

4 thoughts on “Jesus the Judge: Old English Poetry and Doom Paintings

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