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The iconography of weighing of souls (particular judgment)

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Last Judgment of Rogier van der Weyden(The weighing of souls in the polyptych altarpiece of the Last Judgment of Rogier van der Weyden at the Hospices de Beaune, 1443-1452)

The Weighing of souls (the Particular judgment) means the psychostasy in Christianity, and may appear in two contexts: in a first judgment directly involved after the death of the individual or at the Last Judgment. Although there are many variations in the Middle Ages, the image type of the weighing of souls is the archangel Michael, milites dei of the angels carrying the judgment of the dead through a balance with which he weighs their good and bad actions; This is the heaviest plate that wins. So there is a problem of terminology because it is not actually the soul that is weighed but his actions. This is at least what is clear from reading the texts. So it is better to simply call this pattern “weighing”. Is also present in this scene the devil that tries to examine the struggling tray to carry the soul to Hell.


It is found in ancient Egyptian art the first occurrence of a judgment by the balance, although it is in this case a weighing of the heart and the deceased is saved if his heart is the same weight as the feather of Maat. According to diffusionist thesis, there are two hypotheses to explain how the theme of the weighing has survived: the transfer will be done through the Greco-Roman culture, where we find similar images with the weighing of destiny which would then be transmitted to the Christian West in the early Middle Ages. However, note that there is no occurrence of weighing in early Christian art. The second hypothesis is that the transfer would have occurred from Egypt to Byzantium, via Greece. Indeed, the first appearance of the pattern in the East is at the Church of Kastoria in the early tenth century. However, at the same time, there is a case of weighing in Ireland, on the cross of Muiredach. We can therefore assume that this would have come from Egypt to Christian art but still unknown circuits. It seems indeed difficult to accurately trace the current of influences through which the concept of weighing traveled. It must however still consider the possibility that this pattern is born regardless of the Egyptian version, even before the Romanesque period this pattern is very rare in Europe.

Written sources

The weighing is not a scriptural theme, but you can find in the Bible mention of the balance as a symbol of God’s judgment in the book of Job: “God weigh me in honest scales” (Job 31:31). Or in the book of Daniel in the episode of the banquet of King Balthazar, where three words appear in the air above the diners, written by a mysterious hand. The second word, Tekel, is interpreted by Daniel: “Tekel: you have been weighed in the balance and we found you too light” (Daniel 5:27). There are also metaphorical uses of balance: in the Apocalypse it is rationing and famine when wielded by the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse (Apocalypse 6:5). In the book of Proverbs, it is said in praise of the Righteous “false balance is an abomination to Yahweh, but a just weight is his favor” (Proverbs 11.1). Finally, in the Proverbs we read: “Balance and fair trays are to Yahweh, all the weight of the bag are implemented” (Proverbs 16.11).

Thought is not a very present theme in patristic writings. This is mentioned by Lactantius in the Divine institutions and The second letter of Ambrose of Milan to the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, that describes the weighing mechanism. Vincent of Beauvais in the epilogue about the end times in his Speculum historiale quotes a passage of St. John Chrysostom that describes weighing “on this day, our actions, our words and our thoughts will be in both trays, and, leaning to one side, the balance will result in irrevocable sentence.” At the same time, Pseudo-Dionysius call to order the faithful by telling them that episode of the Last Judgment in his Treatise on the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. Finally, the Christian poet Prudence honors Christian martyrs in his collection Peristephanon by taking the image of the weighing.

Weighing in Romanesque art

eardrum of the Saint-Lazare d'Autun Cathedral realized by Gislebert(Detail of the eardrum of the Saint-Lazare d’Autun Cathedral realized by Gislebert, 1120-1146)

We find overwhelmingly illustrations of weighing in the Romanesque period on the capitals, but the images on a larger scale are rare; only the eardrums of Sainte-Foy Conques, Saint-Lazare d’Autun and Vezelay cathedrals illustrate a weighing. These examples are most known for that period but you have to consider that these are somehow exceptions. Indeed, the Last Judgment, although present in the Roman portals, is not the most common theme. Not until the Gothic period when this topic take a prominent place on the facades of churches or cathedrals.

The Romanesque period is the time of the iconographic development, where we already see appearing different terms to be either abandoned or continued and expanded the following centuries. The general trend is however to represent the empty trays balance, demonstrating consistency relative to patristic writings of the early Middle Ages, where it was no question of putting a character in balance. Finally, Romanesque weighings are also closer to the legendary writings that strongly emphasize the struggle between the archangel and the devil. We find this same confrontation in the arrangement of the characters: the balance is usually the axis of symmetry at the center of the composition, the angel and the devil are confronted on either side of this balance.

Weighing in Gothic art

eardrum of the Notre-Dame d'Amiens(Detail of the eardrum of the Notre-Dame d’Amiens, 1220-1269)

In the Gothic period there was another variant of the iconographic series that predominates and puts the archangel Michael in the center of the composition. The devil is on a smaller scale and the Archangel holds the balance before him. The preference for this approach, already present in the Romanesque era, was explained by the predominant role that takes the Archangel Michael in the judicial process. Indeed, its Herald role and right arm of Christ puts him forward as noted the historian Jerome Baschet: “to the Gothic era there is a delegation of the same judgment to St. Michael […] Christ seems content to embody the supreme authority presiding over the trial, his presence and the exposition of its signs are enough.” Indeed, in recent judgments of Gothic eardrums the core concept is the redemption of mankind through Christ. The resurrected are judged by Christ’s sacrifice and increasingly appear in the trays balances of sacrificial metaphors with such a chalice in Bourges or the Agnus Dei in Amiens. Historian Bruno Boerner noted that “the representation of the charity lamb in the tray of good actions reflects […] the axiom “par caritas par meritum“, perennial in the theology of the time. It means that the viewer must understand that when man attains eternal life, it is not fundamentally responsible for what he did, but that it is an act of grace of Christ.”

The originality of this representation is the gesture of St. Michael whose fingers come to rest on the balance beam, thus intervening directly on the divine judgment. This is a completely new gesture in the series of weighing. However, although the fact to intervene when weighing is rather connoted diabolically, here one understands from the theme of the eardrum, St. Michael is actually the vector of divine grace.

Weighing as it appeared in the early Middle Ages lives in the Gothic period during the height of its development. Then the assertion of the doctrine of purgatory, the development of divine grace and the emergence of new iconographic codes challenge and disrupt the performance of the weighing, as it appeared in the Romanesque period.

Weighing in the late Middle Ages: to a new iconography

 Archangel Michael by Riccardo Quartararo(The Archangel Michael by Riccardo Quartararo, around 1506)

We are witnessing the end of the fourteenth century to the merger of both iconography of Saint Michel: the great ponderator (“weighing”) and the milites dei (“soldier of God”) combined in a single image. This phenomenon is not entirely new, some images had already made this meeting but it is from the fifteenth century that could be defined as the standard. The balance is then reduced to an attribute of St. Michael, size decreases progressively and plates are often empty: it loses its highly functional dimension to only an evocation of judgment. So we leave the context of retribution of good and bad actions and post-mortem fate of the individual to enter the field of symbol. The weighing is transformed at the beginning of the modern period in allegory of the victory of virtue over vice. One can also assume that this iconography eventually blend into the female personification of Justice, inherited from Roman mythology and brought up to date from the Renaissance.

Moreover, at that time appear critical of the image considered contentious because it induces, as the texts of the early Middle Ages, that it is enough that good deeds are heavier than the evil to enter Paradise, regardless of the amount of bad deeds. Jean Molanus, in his Treatise of Holy Images which applies during the Counter-Reformation to sort the medieval images to make the perfect Catholic art, criticizes this image that induces him to the faithful astray. He asserts that “nothing unclean can enter the kingdom of God.” Weighing is no longer in line with the post medieval theological discourse, profoundly transformed by the major upheaval of the Protestant Reformation. Although it continues to be used, the image of the weighing as a representation of the process of divine judgment becomes increasingly marginal.

Weighing of souls or actions?

One of the questions related to this topic is why the term “weighing of the soul” is used as according to the texts that are the actions that are balanced. When analyzing a weighing amid Judgment theologically it may be souls as they are reunited with the body at the exit of the tomb. It is different for a trial taking place immediately after the death of the individual because it is the moment when the soul leaves the body: it is therefore prepared to judgment. However, in reading the images, it is not always clearly determines what configuration it is. The specialist in medieval iconography Marcello Angheben says here that ‘the purpose of weighing […] is rarely specified, at least in the West. In Byzantium, the two scales of the balance support phylacteries rolled on which were inscribed the actions – good or bad- of each, lets talk about weighing actions. In the West, the trays are often empty or full of figures or objects varying substantially from one version to another, so it is often very difficult or impossible to determine whether it is the actions or the souls who subject weighing “. A careful consideration of the context in which the image is part can nevertheless often easily explain the content and purpose of weighing.

Translated from Wikipedia

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