1: Last Judgment


Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, Last Judgment, from The Nuremburg Chronicle (Nuremburg, Germany 1493), woodcut.

The subject of the Last Judgment, or the coming of Christ at the end of the world to separate those going to Heaven from those damned to Hell as described in the Book of Revelation, is one that was often portrayed in European prints throughout the 15th century.  As is typical, the most prominent figure in this Last Judgment depiction is unquestionably the judging Christ, seated at the center of the work with the Virgin Mary to His right and St. John the Baptist to His left.  He is situated in the traditional pose associated with His second coming, granting peace and salvation with His right hand and condemning with His left.  Following this same idea, the two sides of Christ’s head are highlighted by the placement of the Lily on the right, a common symbol of martyrdom and piety, and the sword on the left, an icon associated with condemnation and punishment of sinners.

This arrangement is further emphasized by other elements of the image. The right side of the image contains those being saved as St. Peter greets them at the gates of Heaven, while the left side depicts the fiery mouth of Hell with demons viciously pulling sinners into its depths. The bottom of the image portrays bodies being risen from the dead in order to receive either salvation or damnation.  In summation, all of these icons and figures come together to form a very traditional European depiction of the Judgment Day, as founded in the descriptions written in the Book of Revelation.

This traditional representation of the Last Judgment can be found in the Nuremberg Chronicle (more commonly known as Weltchronik in German), a text published in 1493 that tells the history of the Christian world.  The Chronicle was originally written in Latin by physician Hartmann Schedel and the publisher Anton Krogerger was paid by merchants Sebald Schreyer and Sebastian Kammermeister to print the work.[1] A German version of the Chronicle, translated by Georg Alt, was released alongside the Latin version because of an increase in the number of literate German speakers and relative to the number of individuals who could easily read Latin.[2]  The book itself is divided into eleven portions, which are said to represent the eleven ages of the world.[3]  The work presents a very Christianized history of the world, along with geographical information regarding various European cities of importance to the Christian faith.  Both the German and Latin editions contain numerous woodcut prints, such as the Last Judgement image, which were often hand-colored in more exclusive and expensive editions.[4]  The main illustrators were Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff.[5]  Over 1,800 images made from almost 650 different woodcuts can be seen throughout the book, and the Last Judgment image discussed here appears at the end of the work, just as the Judgment day occurs at the end of the world.[6]

Putting together such an extensive historical work was not uncommon in the Middle Ages. Several versions of the history of the world were in circulation during this time, and their subjects covered everything from Creation to the Apocalypse.[7]  However, the Nuremberg Chronicle is an exceptionally intricate printed summation of world history through a Christian lens.  The arrangement of the work closely follows the history of the world outlined in the Christian Bible, first describing the years up to and including the birth of Christ, followed by the life of Christ, and finally concluding with the end of the world and the Last Judgment.[8] Ultimately, this extensive record of Christian history served as a summation of Christianity and various European beliefs and practices.  The last portion of the Chronicle, which encompasses the Last Judgment, includes the woodcut-turned-print being focused on in this discussion, would have taken on additional meaning in light of the millennial concerns tied to the coming of the year 1500.

The significance of this depiction of the Last Judgment, and in a greater sense the concept of the Last Judgment itself, took on an entirely new meaning amongst European Christians with the discovery of the New World in 1492. Well before the New World was discovered, the European people had established a belief in millennialism, which was founded on the idea that Christ would return to judge the living and the dead at the turn of a millennium or half-millennium.[9]  However, in order for this to occur, a universal kingdom of Christians would first have to be established on Earth.  In turn, as an entirely new race of people — perceived by the Europeans as being one of the Lost Tribes of Israel — was discovered in the Americas just before the approaching half-millennium in fifteen hundred; this was seen as a sign of the impending Judgment Day.  With this new found sense of urgency, the Spanish took it upon themselves to convert the native people of America into proper followers of Christ so that the Christian Kingdom would be completed, and their souls too may be saved.[10]  The Europeans wanted to allow the Natives to see that their future could be one of hope or one of despair based on whether or not they chose to embrace Christianity. Soon, this sense of millennialism became a major impetus behind conversion in the New World as that Franciscan friars and other mendicant monastics traveled to the Americas to “convert, baptize, and prepare for the end”.[11]

In turn, it is of little surprise that images of the Last Judgment became widespread amongst monasteries in the Americas. These images became potent tools for educating natives on the possible consequences of failing to accept the Christian faith, while simultaneously serving to remind the Christian friars and teachers of the importance and urgency of their cause.[12] Due to the fact that these friars were attempting to convert a population of people who spoke an entirely different language and came from an entirely different cultural background, they relied heavily on images and icons in order to convey their teachings. Visual imagery was a key form of education, and aided the friars in hastening their duty of conversion before the impending Judgment. Of course, these images included scenes of the Last Judgment portrayed in a similar manner as the woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle. By placing a representation of this image in a monastery, church, or chapel, the native converts were constantly reminded of the value of their conversion to Christianity (and the penalty if they did not convert), and were granted a better understanding of exactly what the Christian faith had to offer: salvation.

Last Judgment, Open Chapel in Actopan, Mexico, mid 16th century

As European woodcuts of the Last Judgment began to circulate throughout New Spain, European-trained indigenous artists were the ones assigned to recreate these images on and in religious buildings. Although multiple variations of the Last Judgment can be found across Mexico, including the mural on the interior of the famous open chapel in Actopan, the specific imagery found on the facade of one of the four posa chapels in the courtyard of the convent of San Andreas in Calpan, Puebla (Mexico) most closely resembles that of the woodcut in the Nuremberg Chronicle discussed above. From an iconographical standpoint, the posa chapel carving remains in accordance with the woodcut in the Nuremberg Chronicle: Christ is the central focal point, with the Virgin Mary to his right and St. John the Baptist to his left. In addition, two angels are carrying instruments of the passion and blowing trumpets to prepare the souls, seen emerging from rectangular graves below Christ, for judgment. Directly situated above Christ is a lily to his right, and a sword to his left, which symbolize the reward for entering paradise and the punishment for being damned to hell, respectively.

Detail of Last Judgment, from Southwest Posa Chapel, convento of San Andres, Calpan Puebla, late 16th century

While the iconographical elements of the Last Judgment depicted on the posa chapel are almost identical to European woodcuts, the stylistic features are a hybrid of both European and native elements, resulting from the development of what is referred to as tequitqui style. The term tequitqui — which comes from the Nahuatl word for “vassal” or “subject person”— refers first to the Aztec symbols and motifs that persist in early colonial stone sculpture in New Spain. [13]  In terms of style, important to the discussion here, tequitqui refers to the so-called flattened appearance of deep and bevelled carvings, which has been speculated to have roots in Aztec stone carving.

Tequitui Style Foundation Date Stone, Tecamachalco, Mexico, 1589-90

To demonstrate the presence of tequitqui style on the wall of the posa chapel in Calpan, let us juxtapose it with another visual representation of this style: the date stone of the Franciscan monastery at Tecamachalco. Strictly looking at the stylistic elements of this date stone, one can clearly see the common features of tequitqui style: the deep carving, rounded edges, and flattened appearance. [14] When comparing the date stone at Tecamachalco with the Last Judgement carving on the posa chapel, the use of the tequitqui style by the artist is evident, specifically in relation to dimensionality. It is important to note that the sculptor of the posa chapel would have designed and carved the three-dimensional images of Christ, the Virgin, and Saint Joseph from a two dimensional prototype. The prototype, a woodcut similar to that in the Nuremberg Chronicle, would have been visually flat and extremely simplistic in style (Fig. 1). By incorporating the tequitqui style into his design, the artist added a dimensional element and enhanced the iconographical features of the original image, which resulted in the development of the tequitqui stylistic design.

The combination of European iconographical elements with the native artistic style  created a hybrid illustration of the Last Judgment, which became an extremely valuable tool used in the conversion of the natives, one of the major goals fueling Spanish conquest in the Americas. While visually depicting Christian biblical scenes, these artistic works ultimately served as a reminder to the natives of their fate if they refused to or failed to convert. The hybridity of post-conquest Last Judgment imagery provides us with valuable insight into both the religious and artistic realms of Colonial Spanish America.

Michael Ramirez, Olivia Calamia, and Jamie Reinah


[1] “Treasures of the Library: Nuremberg Chronicle,” Cambridge Digital Library. Accessed April 18, 2016.

[2] Dr. Sharon Wright, “The Nuremberg Chronicle of the Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, Wilcox, Saskatchewan: General Information,” USAsk.ca. Accessed April 18, 2016.

[3] “Treasures of the Library: Nuremberg Chronicle,” Cambridge Digital Library. Accessed April 18, 2016.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rainer Rauhut, “The Nuremberg Chronicle, Nuremberg 1493,” Philographikon.com. Accessed April 18, 2016.

[6] “The Nuremberg Chronicle,” Library of Congress: World Digital Library. September 25, 2015. Accessed April 18, 2016.

[7] “Treasures of the Library: Nuremberg Chronicle,” Cambridge Digital Library. Accessed April 18, 2016.

[8] Dr. Sharon Wright, “The Nuremberg Chronicle of the Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, Wilcox, Saskatchewan: General Information,” USAsk.ca. Accessed April 18, 2016.

[9] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “millennialism.” Accessed April 28, 2016.

[10] Jaime Lara, Christian Texts for Aztecs (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 57-58.

[11] Jaime Lara, Christian Texts for Aztecs (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 58.

[12] Ibid., 59.

[13]  Bailey, Gauvin A., Art of Colonial Latin America, London: Phaidon, 2005, 82

[14] Bailey, Gauvin A. Art of Colonial Latin America. London: Phaidon, 2005, 83