Confronting the End of Time: The Transformation of the Last Judgment Scenario in a Fifteenth-Century Novgorod Icon

Priscilla Hunt, University of Massachusetts

An icon, larger than a man, hangs in the Tret'jakov Gallery. A serpent wends it way up its middle surrounded by the scenario of the Last Judgment. Scholars have classified this icon as a "Last Judgment" from Novgorod of the mid-fifteenth century. While the iconographer provides ample surface evidence for this interpretation, the provocative image of the serpent as well as the unusual appearance of a Chalice at its apex invite us to look for a hidden deeper meaning. An analysis of the relationship between the visual image and the written subtext reveals that the icon symbolizes "Wisdom's house" of Proverbs 9. My goal is to show that the Wisdom symbolism transforms the Last Judgment imagery into an archetype of the mystical life of the Church and that this transformation reflects both the poetics and worldview of the mid-fifteenth-century Byzantine world.

This paper will first identify and explain the conventional Last Judgment images in the icon derived principally from the Prophet Daniel's vision of the end of time. A comparison of this icon with two related icons respectively displaying Wisdom's House and the Last Judgment enables us to underscore its conventionality and its uniqueness. I will then show how its poetic structure of four tiers, signifying a unity of archetype and image, subordinates the Last Judgment imagery to a model of Wisdom's house signifying the transcendental nature of the historical church. Subtextual clues alert us that the serpent symbolizes a cross standing for Wisdom's "feast of knowledge" of Proverbs 9. In light of its subtexts from John 12 and 3, the serpent alludes to Christ's "lifting up" on the cross as a theophany judging the world "now," i.e., in spiritual, liturgical time. This theophany, in the larger context of the icon, motivates an interior mystical interpretation of the Last Judgment scenario portrayed around it.

Our explanation of the icon's hidden meaning allows us to speculate that it represents a response to the expected end of time in 1492 in the context of contemporary hesychast mysticism and poetics. It reflects the interpretation of Proverbs 9:1-5 of the hesychast Patriarch of Constantinople, Philotheus, and also the general tendencies of contemporary Paleologian art. At the same time, its symbolic model reveals it to be a suitable object of contemplation during the Saturday of the Commemoration of the Dead and the Sunday of the Last Judgment which prepare the way for Lent. They emphasize the unity of the living and the dead in the experience of an on-going internal judgment and illumination which promises deliverance from the Last Judgment. The icon's recontextualization of the Last Judgment scenario thus suggests the importance of the Lenten period in the Church's response to the crisis of the impending end. Finally, its unique allusion to the cult of the Cross to symbolize Wisdom's feast indicate its association with the Church of Holy Wisdom of Novgorod, whose consecration feast is the Elevation of the Cross. Its meaning also corresponds to the agenda of the Novgorod Archbishop Euthymius (1429-1458) in articulating the significance of the Russian Church in the drama of world salvation after the Byzantine empire has fallen and the end is at hand.

This icon's large size, its synthesis of the themes of its age, and its association with the Metropolitan's court all testify to its status in its time. Indeed, it appears to be the source of a tradition of Last Judgment icons with Wisdom motifs flourishing in Russia and the Ukraine up through the eighteenth century. My reinterpretation of the icon's meaning indicates the reasons for its significance--its role of crystallizing and resolving the problematics of its age. This reinterpretation also lays the ground for speculation about the icon's importance for understanding the eschatological nature of Muscovite ideology in the age of Ivan IV as developed by the Metropolitan Macarius, formerly archbishop of Novgorod.