Confronting the End: The Interpretation of the Last Judgment in a Novgorod Wisdom Icon
By Priscilla Hunt
Byzantinoslavica, Vol. 65 (2007)
Introduction: A large Novgorod icon, dated in the mid-fifteenth or early sixteenth century, has been called a Last Judgment composition by scholarship. This icon’s size, complexity, and high level of artistic synthesis speak both to its potential importance in its time and its elite appeal. Its role as the progenitor of a new iconographic tradition of portraying the Last Judgment with a serpent is further evidence of its status. However, it evinces an unusual iconography of the Last Judgment. The image of the ringed serpent wending its way up the middle of a seemingly conventional scenario of the Second Coming and resurrection of the dead is unprecedented. So also is the chalice that shines at the icon’s apex. These images invite us to question whether the Last Judgment theme encompasses the icon’s full meaning.
Our thesis is that this icon’s unconventional aspects are deliberate pointers to a hidden poetic structure, accessible only to the initiate. This deep structure is a system of interrelated parts conveying a unity of meaning. Although the links uniting these parts exist on the visual level, they are predominantly a function of subtextual narratives and symbols operating below the surface and realized in the educated viewer’s mind. The iconographer relies on the viewer’s silent co-participation in his creative process to uncover a mystery beyond words. This study constructs an “intellectual vision” of the icon by decoding the poetic language that embeds its esoteric message.