Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
The Four Last Things
Karel van Mander described a work executed by Heemskerck for his pupil Jakob Rauwaert, depicting ‘Four Extreme Endings, Death, Judgement, Eternal Life, and Hell. It was a superb painting that required much study. There were many nudes and human figures in various poses. The variety of human emotions is to be noticed - the pains of Death, the joys of Heaven, and the sorrows and horrors of Hell.’
The subject can be read from left to right. Firstly we see the Death of a single man - Everyman. The famous English medieval mystery play of that name is a version of a Flemish original, also called ‘Everyman’ (Elckerlijc) and first published in 1495. Both plays tell of the death-bed struggle for the soul of the hero. The dying man here has led a good life, the life of a pilgrim; on the floor lie staff, drinking gourd and hat, covered in shells and badges, tokens of his many pilgrimages. The man is surrounded by the three Cardinal Virtues: Faith with a cross and chalice, Hope with an anchor, and Charity with children and a flaming heart. The last rites are being administered by a priest, who hands a candle to the dying man.
The resurrection of the dead occurs across the centre of the composition, with nude figures emerging from their graves, in some cases (especially in the right foreground) their bones are being reclothed in flesh before our eyes. Christ sits in Judgement in clouds to the right, flanked by John the Baptist (advocating Justice) and Mary (advocating Mercy). Mary is accompanied by two other female saints, one of whom is certainly St Mary Magdalene, the archetypal penitent. Heaven is a small, golden break in the clouds, towards which the souls of the virtuous are praying. Hell is a burning land, with a bridge over the river Styx and what appears to be a castle (and indeed resembles the Castel St Angelo in Rome). Upon closer examination it is clearly a giant cauldron. Hell is also represented by the open mouth of a giant fish guarded by Pluto, the classical god of the underworld, and his three-headed dog Cerberus. Devils are claiming all types of men, including an overfed king.
Most of this eschatological imagery is familiar from other depictions of the subject. One oddity is the way in which Christ is moved off-centre, away from the blaze of light (the rising sun of the Second Coming), which would normally act as His heavenly throne. This has allowed Heemskerck to suggest the passage of the sun during one day, from night on the left, through morning in the centre, towards the final sunset on the right.
Signed lower left: 'Martyn Van Heemskerk./. inventor.'; inscribed on the stone in the lower left corner with the date: '1565.'