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A Scene of Post-Mortem Judgment in the New Minster Liber Vitae


David F. Johnson, Florida State University

Editor's Note: Full-color reproductions of the manuscript images that originally accompanied this essay are now available on the British Library's website. Please click on the links below to access them, then click on the image itself for a larger and more detailed view:

The line drawings on folios 6v and 7r of MS London, British Library, Stowe 944 are among the best known Anglo-Saxon illuminations extant today. Following their first publication in Birch's 1892 edition of the New Minster Liber Vitae, they have appeared in just about every art historical survey or study of Anglo-Saxon art published since. [1] In all of these the composition is labeled a "Last Judgment" scene. [2] But the composition bears little resemblance to the classic Last Judgment scenes depicted elsewhere in medieval painting and sculpture. A more accurate description of the total composition would be a scene of individual post-mortem judgment, an image ultimately designed to underscore the importance of intercessory prayer.

Folio 6v shows at the top two groups of figures being guided by a pair of angels; because they all wear the nimbus, the group on the right appears to be comprised of saints and martyrs, while the figures on the left, without nimbus, are merely blessed. Below this group, with their gaze directed at the scene to the right, are two figures who have been identified as St. Benedict (with the cross-staff) and Ælgar, first Abbot of New Minster (A.D. 965), whose name appears to the left of them (in red) on the page. The top register on folio 7r depicts St. Peter, one of the most prominent patron saints of the New Minster, beckoning to the saints, martyrs, and blessed to follow him into the Celestial City, the gates of which he has unlocked with his double-warded keys, and in which Christ is shown sitting in majesty, with four figures—it has been suggested the Evangelists—worshiping him. Below this, in the second register, the central action of St. Peter clouting a devil over the head with his keys is shown, with the soul in the middle looking up imploringly at Peter, and the devil and an angel, taken by most to be the Archangel Michael, each holding up an open book. To the right of this struggle, another demon lays hold of two other figures, presumably damned souls. In the bottom-most register we see an angel, again usually taken to be Michael, locking the doors of hell and throwing the key over his shoulder. Meanwhile another demon is dragging two damned souls down with him into hellmouth, as two other figures on the right dive and one on the left tumbles as well into the open jaws of hell. It bears remarking that Michael does not have two keys, as some critics suggest; rather this is better understood as a classic example of Kurt Weitzmann's simultaneous representation of multiple actions in a single miniature. [3]

There seems to be general scholarly agreement that the elements of this scene have no parallels among existing medieval illuminations, English or otherwise. Though Dimitri Tselos finds in certain details traces of a possible influence by the Utrecht Psalter, these have no bearing on the overall makeup of the composition; at most there are hints at a similarity in style in one or two figures. [4] If the designer/artist was not copying or adapting an already existent model, we may suppose he relied on other sources to provide the elements for his drawing. In fact, the evidence suggests that he was more likely to have been influenced by the texts that he read or heard than by the visual components he was used to working with.

The best known textual echo in this composition is between the scene depicted in the bottom register and a motif found in three eschatological homilies, especially Vercelli Homily 15. Mary Clayton first noted the parallel in her discussion of the "Delivering the Damned" motif in these homilies. [5] Here Mary, Michael, and Peter each come forward, throwing themselves at Christ's feet to beg for mercy for a third portion of the souls condemned at the Final Judgment. Christ grants them their wish, turns to the two groups of souls now divided, and seals their fate by pronouncing the "Uenite, benedicti" and "Discedite, maledicti" formulas. The text then turns to a description of the fate of the truly damned souls, and the parallels between its contents and the Stowe drawing are striking indeed. The homily describes doomed souls being driven by demons down into hell, graphically represented here by the devil who clutches two unfortunate figures by the hair; more significantly, the text describes Peter locking the door to hell, turning away from it, and throwing the key back down into hell, all three of which actions are clearly performed by the angel (though not Peter here) in the bottom register of the Stowe drawing. It seems clear that there must be some relationship between the homiletic texts containing this motif and the drawing, but the precise nature of that relationship proves difficult to determine with any degree of certainty. The homily predates the illustration, for the earliest manuscript in which the motif occurs is the Vercelli Book, generally dated to the late tenth century, while our drawing was composed sometime in the first quarter of the eleventh century. [6]

Again, the Stowe composition is as much a scene of intercession as it is one of Judgment: Peter is very clearly and graphically interceding on behalf of the soul threatened by the devil in the middle register. Further indications that we are dealing with something other than the traditional Last Judgment scene are to be found in the top register. There we notice that Christ is depicted in a relatively diminutive size – which strikes one as really too small to indicate the central figure in the drama of the Last Judgment – and he is lacking an important element of Christ the Judge, namely the Book of Life, spoken of in the Apocalypse of John, and featured in most representations of the Last Judgment which derive their inspiration from that text. The top register, then, is best viewed not as part of a Last Judgment scene, but rather as a depiction of the ultimate reward granted to the blessed; it is one of the consequences of Judgment, but not part of the central action. Likewise the bottom register depicts the other, equally everlasting consequence of the Final Judgment: eternal damnation and torment in Hell. Taken together these two scenes constitute independent views of the final, post-Judgment reward and punishment of good and bad souls. Consequently the central action of the composition as a whole can hardly be termed one of the Last Judgment, given the relative insignificance of Christ, and the prominence of Peter, whose intercession and struggle with the devil for control of the soul shown in the middle register forms such an arresting feature of the illustration.

If it seems clear that the author of Vercelli 15 and the artist of the Stowe illustration drew upon a common tradition for this motif, no such certain analogues exist for the remaining panels. The most promising body of texts, in terms of their potential influence on the designer of this composition, is that containing visions of individual judgment at the moment of death. Several details appearing in the middle register strongly suggest this. First, the representation of the contested figure here is the iconographic commonplace of the soul – in particular the soul just departed from the body – depicted as a child. Second, the books held up by the Archangel Michael and the devil, no doubt containing the good and bad deeds committed by the soul in life, reflect a motif common in many early medieval accounts of the soul's departure from the body, namely that these deeds are there to be read, either by accusing devils or angels, or the soul itself, and it is they which will determine whether the soul is destined for bliss, purification, or torment. There are a number of Old English texts that reinforce the notion that the Stowe drawing may have been styled on apocryphal soul and body visions. Given the restraints of space, one such example will have to suffice here, and it may help explain a detail in the drawing which has as of yet been unaccounted for. [7]

The eschatological poem Christ III includes a passage in which, before any formal judgment has been made, the poet describes the three griefs of the damned as they await their inevitable fate. The first grief is the sight of the fierce fire of hell which has been prepared for their torment; the second grief is the unbearable shame of having their sins being clearly visible to one and all. The third and final grief is as follows:

Ðonne bið þæt þridde     þearfendum sorg,

cwiþende cearo,     þæt hy on þa clænan seoð,

hu hi fore goddædum     glade blissiað,

þa hy, unsælge,     ær forhogdun

to donne     þonne him dagas læstun;

ond be hyra weorcum     wepende sar

þæt hi ær freolice     fremedon unryht.

Geseoð hi þa betran     blæde scinan;

ne bið him hyra yrmðu     an to wite,

ac þara oþerra     ead to sorgum,

þæs þe hy swa fægre gefean     on fyrndagum

ond swa ænlice     anforletun,

þurh leaslice     lices wynne,

earges flæschoman     idelne lust. (1284-1297) [8]

One notices that the two figures being clutched by the demon in the lower register are unusually contorted. In itself this is not surprising, for a smooth ride down to hell is hardly to be expected. [9] But it is especially the figure on the left who suggests that the artist may have had the motif of the sight of the blessed as added punishment for the damned in mind, for this figure's head, and gaze, are turned conspicuously upward, and it doesn't take much to imagine that he is looking beyond the scene of Peter's intercession to the procession of saints and angels and the splendor of the Beatific Vision represented on the facing page in the top register.

If the torment of the damned is increased by their seeing the joy of the blessed, the opposite is also the case. [10] In Christ III, the blessed receive three "signs" that they will be rewarded for doing the will of the Lord in word and deed. The first sign is that their bodies will shine like the sun, the second and third follow:

Oþer is to eacan     ondgete swa some,

þæt hy him in wuldre witon     waldendes giefe,

ond on seoð,     eagum to wynne,

þæt hi on heofonrice     hlutre dreamas

eadge mid englum     agan motun.

Ðonne bið þridde,     hu on þystra bealo

þæt gesælige weorud     gesihð þæt fordone

sar þrowian,     synna to wite,

weallendne lig,     ond wyrma slite

bitrum ceaflum,     byrnendra scole.

Of þam him aweaxeð     wynsum gefea,

þonne hi þæt yfel geseoð     oðre dreogan,

þæt hy þurh miltse     meotudes genæson.

þonne hi þy geornor     gode þonciað

blædes ond blissa     þe hy bu geseoð,

þæt he hy generede     from niðcwale

ond eac forgeaf     ece dreamas;

bið him hel bilocen,     heofonrice agiefen. (1242-1259) [11]

The second of the two signs described here is relevant in a general way, as the four figures shown worshiping Christ in the upper register are no doubt rejoicing at the sight of God's grace, and it is here that they will possess the pure joys of heaven with the blessed and the angels, to whom St. Peter is beckoning on the left. But there are even closer parallels between this top register and the third sign of the blessed in the Christ III passage. The blessed look upon the suffering of the damned; this increases their own delight at having escaped a similar fate (1247-54) and they thank the Lord all the more earnestly for their reward. We might reasonably suppose that this is exactly what the four figures are doing. But to my knowledge no one has explained the meaning of the other two figures in this scene, the ones peering out the windows of the little tower in the heavenly city. I would suggest that they are in a position to view the punishment of the damned below and, as such, they are counterparts to the poor souls about to enter hell whose gaze is turned upward. It would appear, then, that both the tower occupants looking out and the sinners gazing upward ultimately owe their appearance in the Stowe illustration to the same tradition upon which the author of Christ III also drew.

Milton McC. Gatch has divided visionary passages in Old English in general into three classes: "visions concerned with individual judgment, those revealing something of the life after death, and those intended to prove the efficacy of intercession." The artist who produced the drawings in Stowe 944 succeeded in combining all three of these aims in a single composition: this is a vision of an individual soul's fate shortly after death; it illustrates graphically the two possible modes of post mortem existence; and there can be no doubt that Peter's actions and the context of the Liber Vitae itself allude emphatically to the efficacy of intercessory prayer. As the few details discussed here suggest, the artist culled the elements of his composition, as well as the overarching structure, primarily from apocryphal, eschatalogical accounts (all available in the vernacular), and it is with this in mind that the importance of redefining the drawing lies, for as Antonette di Paolo Healey has pointed out, such apocryphal material, translated and edited into homilies, "exerted a perceptible influence on other areas of Anglo-Saxon culture: poets alluded to it, workers in stone carve scenes from it; and even Anglo-Saxon medicine men appropriate details from it for their charms and recipes." [12] To this list we may add the eleventh-century anonymous illuminator of the Liber Vitae of the New Minster, Winchester, who dramatized the very function of the book itself through his drawings.



[1] Among these are Robert Deshman, "Anglo-Saxon Art After Alfred," Art Bulletin 56 (1974): 176-200; C. R. Dodwell, Anglo-Saxon Art (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1982); Richard Gameson, The Role of Art in the Late Anglo-Saxon Church (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995); T. D. Kendrick, Late Saxon and Viking Art (London: Methuen, 1949); Thomas H. Ohlgren, Insular and Anglo-Saxon Illuminated Manuscripts: An Iconographic Catalogue c. A.D. 625 to 1100 (New York: Garland, 1986); K. M. Openshaw, "The Battle Between Christ and Satan in the Tiberius Psalter," Journal of the Warburg and Cortauld Institute 52 (1989): 14-33; Elżbieta Temple, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts 900-1066 (London: Miller, 1976). The drawings first appeared in Walter de Gray Birch's edition: Liber Vitae: Register and Martyrology of New Minster and Hyde Abbey, Winchester (London: Simpkin, 1892). A facsimile of the manuscript has recently been published: The Liber Vitae of the New Minster and Hyde Abbey, Winchester: British Library Stowe 944, ed. Simon Keynes (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1996).

[2] A notable exception is Gameson, Role of Art, p. 139, who rightly describes it as an image depicting the "fate of the soul."

[3] Kurt Weitzmann, Illustrations in Roll and Codex: A Study of the Origin and Method of Text Illustration, Studies in Manuscript Illumination 2 (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1947, second edn. 1970). See especially his discussion of "The Simultaneous Method" (pp. 12 ff).

[4] Dimitri Tselos, "English Manuscript Illustration and the Utrecht Psalter," The Art Bulletin 41 (1959): 137-149, at 139-40 and note 15.

[5] Mary Clayton, "Delivering the Damned: A Motif in Old English Prose," Medium Ævum 55 (1986): 92-102.

[6] Ultimately the idea of an angel locking the doors of hell may be traced back to the Apocalypse of John, where in the opening verses of chapter 20 we read, "And I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit, and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold on the dragon the old serpent, which is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years."

[7] I am preparing fuller discussion of the literary influences underlying this composition for publication elsewhere.

[8] Then that third grief for the sufferers,

wailful sorrow, will be that they shall look upon the pure ones,

how they rejoice in gladness because of their good deeds,

which they, wretched ones, scorned before

to do when their days continued;

and weeping sorely for their deeds,

that they before eagerly committed injustice.

They shall see the more righteous shining in glory.

Not only their own afflictions will be a torment to them,

but the blessedness of the others will be a sorrow,

because in days past they forsook

joys so fair and excellent

because of the false joys of the flesh,

the vain lust of the vile body.

(Christ III, 1284-97, ed. George Philip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, The Exeter Book, ASPR 3 [New York: Columbia UP, 1936]).

[9] The posture of these figures has iconographical parallels in the wild fall to hell of the rebel angels portrayed in the Junius 11 manuscript and the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch in Cotton Claudius B. iv.

[10] A relevant early use of this motif is a passage from Gregory's 40th homily in his series of Forty Homilies on the Gospels; see e.g. David Hurst, trans., Gregory the Great: Forty Gospel Homilies (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1990): 370-87.

[11] The second also shall be likewise clear,

that in glory they shall know God's grace,

and gaze, a delight to the eyes,

that they can possess pure joys in heaven

blessed among the angels.

Then the third shall be, how that happy band

shall behold the ruined one suffering in agony

in the misery of darkness as punishment for sins,

the raging flame, and gnawing of worms

with bitter jaws, the host of burning ones;

from that happy delight shall spring up in them,

when they see others enduring that agony

which they by the mercy of God have escaped.

Then they thank God the more earnestly,

for glory and gladness because they behold both fortunes,

that He preserved them from destruction

and also granted them eternal joys,

to them hell shall be shut, the kingdom of heaven given.

(Christ III, 1242-59).

[12] Milton McC. Gatch, Preaching and Theology in Anglo-Saxon England (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1977): 69; Antonette diPaolo Healey, "Anglo-Saxon Use of the Apocryphal Gospel," in The Anglo-Saxons: Synthesis and Achievement, ed. J. Douglas Woods and David A. E. Pelteret (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 1985): 93-104, at 94.