Fra Angelico

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Last weekend I was back in Berlin and stopped off at the Gemäldegalerie, a gallery displaying European art from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century.  There were many masterpieces on display, including those from artists such as Raphael, Caravaggio, Bruegel and Botticelli.  However, tucked away in a side room was a painting which distinguished itself from the great masters’ works:  Last Judgement by Fra Angelico.

Painted in 1431, the extensive use of gold caught my eye as it illuminated one small corner of a room.  Upon closer inspection, the celestial beauty of Christ and the angels contrasted with the terrifying depiction of the devil demanded every inch of my attention.

On the left hand side of the triptych is heaven.  The figures in this section are granted space and serenity, their hands loosely clasped in prayer as their bodies appear to float gracefully towards God and heaven.

At the top of the centre section, Christ is surrounded by angels, saints and Mary. Christ’s right hand is raised, with His left hand directed towards hell condemning those who have sinned.  At the bottom of the middle section are figures whose fate is yet to be decided.  They are kneeling, pleading for saviour as souls are carried over to hell by unusual, dark creatures.

In the right hand section sits the devil, a horned black monster that appears to be eating one of the damned souls.  He presides over the torture as figures are burned, stabbed and force fed molten liquid.  In contrast to the calming nature of heaven, the condemned bodies are tightly pressed together, their torment manifesting itself as they eat their own and other’s flesh.

Anguished faces, torture and dripping blood would be enough to deter anyone from sinning.  I can imagine the powerful impact of this triptych in 1431.  Even I moved away from the painting with a lasting sense of unease.

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