De verrassende Middeleeuwen


Heavenly schadenfreude

afbeelding van het Laatste Oordeel, handschrift

Depictions of the Last Judgment are ubiquitous in medieval pictorial art. The scene appearing on folio 7r of Stowe 944 is one half of a two-folio spread that combines motifs of the Final Judgment and individual post-mortem judgment. In the top register Christ sits in majesty while St. Peter beckons to the blessed to enter the portal of heaven which he has unlocked with his key. The middle register shows St. Peter and a devil fighting for the fate of a diminutive figure caught between them: the disembodied soul of a recently deceased man. Several elements have parallels in Old English and Latin literature from the 8th to the 11th centuries, e.g. the books held by St. Peter and the devil, whereby the single bifolium gripped by the devil contains all his sins, and the large volume with many pages holds the record of his good deeds, a sure sign that Peter will win this struggle. A tenth-century Old English homily ends its description of the Final Judgment with St. Michael locking the gates of hell with St. Peter’s keys and throwing them down into the infernal pit, a scene explicitly replicated here. Unique to this composition are the two figures in the top register looking out of (and down from) the windows of the heavenly Jerusalem, as well as the aspect of two of the damned below, whose gaze is conspicuously (and painfully) directed upward. This is another motif associated with the Final Judgment that can be traced at least as far back as Bede’s 40th Homily on the Gospels, and which appears in both Anglo-Latin and Old English poetry and prose. This is “heavenly schadenfreude” as explained by Bede: the torment of the damned is increased by their sight of the blessed in heaven, and conversely the joy of the righteous is increased by their being able to see the wicked in torment.

David F. Johnson

Further reading

A detailed record and select bibliography on MS Stowe 944 is found here.


The New Minster Liber Vitae, London, British Library, MS Stowe 944, fol. 7r., ca. 1031. By permission of the British Library.

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