Reformation Imagery: Life and Death

There have probably always been images of life after death: images of what people believed would happen on the Day of Judgement at the end of time, and images of what life in Heaven or Hell would look like after the final judgement. Or at least endless images with this theme from the early Middle Ages to today exist.

Ideas about the Day of Judgement and its consequences have, however, changed over time, which has also changed images of them. Luther’s new ideas about the relationship between life, judgement and punishment therefore also changed Judgement Day imagery.

In the old church, depictions of the Day of Judgement always showed Christ sitting on a rainbow judging the resurrected. The Virgin Mary and John the Baptist stood by his side, attempting to influence the judgements favourably. Some were saved and immediately went to Heaven, whereas others were judged for their sins and sent to Purgatory. Here they were purified, often by being cruelly punished. These sinners were then divided again into those who could be cleansed and go to Heaven, and those who could not and were damned to Hell for all eternity. Their torment here was depicted with varying degrees of detail and zeal as a deterrent to others.

Luther, however, had abolished the role of saints as intermediaries between people and God – and thereby also the role of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist as Judgement Day advocates. He had also abolished Purgatory, since it is never mentioned in the Bible.

The idea of the Day of Judgement and hell still existed, but the ways of avoiding hell changed. Luther believed that a sinner could be saved by God’s grace if their belief in his mercy was sincere. Faith, i.e. the faith Luther represented, was paramount. In faith, people were to look to Jesus, repent their sins, receive the grace of God, and then battle against sin within themselves.