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Last Judgement and the Seven Works of Mercy

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Bernard van Orley
Brussels 1491/ 1492 - Brussels 1542
oil on panel
248 x 406 cm
Inventory number IB 741 – 745

Around 1518, the Almoners of the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp commissioned a triptych from Bernard van Orley. Six years later, the artist delivered this altarpiece. At the centre, Christ, seated on a rainbow that symbolises the covenant between God and Humankind, passes Final Judgement. The Archangel Michael assists him by weighing the souls to separate the Just and the Damned. The former are admitted to Paradise, the latter are condemned to Hell. The Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, each accompanied by six apostles, are seated at the top of the wings. As intercessors, it is their role to emphasise the good in man, in order to inspire charity on the part of the Judge. Spread across the diptych are scenes representing the Seven Works of Mercy. In the left panel, almoners are giving the thirsty drink and feeding the hungry, and a homeless person is given shelter. In the right wing, the naked are clothed and a sick man is comforted by visitors. Further in the background, religious prisoners are ransomed. At the centre, Orley depicts the seventh act of mercy: the burial of a dead person.

The right example

The triptych not only depicts the daily activities of the Almoners; it also reminds them that they must live a virtuous and merciful life, as one day Christ will pass judgement on them, too.

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