The Greatest Possible Torment: The Last Judgment by Frans Floris


Max Feldman writes about the holocaust, Arendt, and Frans Floris's The Last Judgment in this month's column.

One fine Sunday morning, at the age of five or six, I discovered the Holocaust. My father, a high school history teacher, was preparing a lesson. I don’t remember exactly how I saw the photographs. Perhaps he left the room with the book open. Maybe I looked over his shoulder. I can’t remember exactly what I saw. There is something inevitable about the options: the mounds of hollow corpses, living skeletons, or rotting carcasses drooping limp from the gallows in the ghetto. Whatever it was, it doesn’t mean I single out this moment as the one where everything changed for me, like how Susan Sontag describes a similar experience in her classic essay on photography, “In Plato’s Cave”.

Sontag says that she had a “negative epiphany” when at age twelve she saw images from Bergen-Belsen and Dachau. She says these sights instantly wounded her, dividing her life in two parts. “When I looked at those photographs, something broke,” she writes. “Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror; I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying.”[i]

This sounds suspicious these days. There’s something kitsch about the idea that Sontag, or anyone else, could live in a state of prelapsarian bliss before seeing these images. Most children aren’t exposed to these pictures as early as I was. Though, like many born at the end of the last century or the beginning of the new one, I would see them sooner or later. This is probably much more likely in Jewish households than any other, but it doesn’t make the responses themselves more or less refined than anybody else’s. It just places them in a specific post-war history. This is what connects my experience to that of Sontag and Hannah Arendt. Arendt’s reading places images like this in a much broader historical context.

Arendt did not write anything about Holocaust pictures, but writes that “the reality of concentration camps resembles nothing so much as medieval pictures of Hell.”[ii] This reiterates what she says in an essay written five years earlier, “The Image of Hell.”[iii] Arendt is probably referring to grisly altarpieces from medieval churches, (non-medieval) visions of hell in Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1564), Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-69), and Dante’s Inferno. Other images are available, but we have to avoid two pitfalls.

One would mistake what Arendt is saying about hell with the “holocaustic” tone in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or Inferno by photojournalist James Nachtwey. The latter is a grim “coffee table” book of Nachtwey’s pictures of destroyed bodies from wars, famines, and orphanages in Rwanda, Somalia, Romania, Bosnia, Chechnya, India, and Kosovo. Nachtwey’s book forms part of the second pitfall, what philosopher J.M. Bernstein calls the “pornography of horror”. Bernstein uses this term when comparing Nachtwey’s work to Giorgio Agamben’s disturbing Remnants of Auschwitz.[iv]

By the pornography of horror, Bernstein means two things. One is the strange sensuous gratification we might get from looking at or imagining the degraded, starving bodies of concentration camp victims without thinking about the ethical claim they make on us. The other is the problem of what Bernstein calls the “framing of devastation for the sake of the moral satisfaction of the liberal gaze.”[v]  Perhaps Sontag’s account falls into this category. To avoid this, we should think about the relationship between Arendt’s camp/hell comparison and real pictorial representations of hell.

Images of the afterlife are, Arendt says, the only way to describe the “atmosphere of madness and unreality” of concentration camps. For Arendt, camps for refugees, displaced and stateless persons, and the asocial and unemployed, represent Hades. The neglect and forced labour of the Soviet Union’s labour camps were Purgatory. Arendt reserves Hell, however, for the Nazi camps, where “the whole of life was thoroughly and systematically organized with a view to the greatest possible torment.”[vi]

The road to hell, Arendt writes, is paved with “accumulated terror”. The weak die of neglect, or starvation combined with forced labour. When death is industrialised in the concentration camps, however, human beings are reduced to:

the lowest common denominator of organic life itself, plunged into the darkest and deepest abyss of primal equality, like cattle, like matter, like things that had neither body nor soul, nor even a physiognomy upon which death could stamp its seal.[vii]

There are many accounts of this, from Primo Levi to Giorgio Agamben. We do not need to add another. Much can be learned, however, from one neglected image of the beastly abyss, The Last Judgment (1565) by Flemish painter Frans Floris (1519/20-1570). Floris shows us monsters committing ghastly deeds. There is, however, no straightforward analogy between what we see in this picture and what Arendt is describing. Nor is the “deepest abyss” where you’d expect to find it.

On the left, humanity stands naked in line waiting to be judged at the end of time. The figures gradually become one beam of light as they reach the picture’s vanishing point. Some are carried to heaven by winged angels. They have been saved and will spent eternity sitting beneath Jesus, enthroned on a cloud, surrounded by the saints. Others cower in fear at what is taking place at the right side of the picture. Here, we see monstrous creatures, ghastly human-animal fusions snatching the damned and tossing them, wailing, into the fiery jaws of hell. At the bottom left, a bearded man turns his head, looking out of the picture space. He indicates a stone cube with Latin script from Wisdom 6:10 written on it, reading “For those will be made holy who observe holy things I holiness, and those who have been taught them will find a defense.” (“Qui custodierint iustitiam, iuste iudicabuntur: et qui didicerint iusta invenient quid respondeant.”[viii])

There is much to say about The Last Judgment as an example of Floris’s style and place in history. This is especially so since the publication of art historian Edward H. Wouk’s study, the only monograph on the painter available in English.[ix] For one thing, the figures in this painting are perfect examples of Floris’s painterly technique. They also tell us something about his religious views.
The demonic figures are examples of what Wouk calls “monstrous hybridity.” There is more than one reason for this. Their bodies mix the kind of muscular human perfection we see in the tradition of Michelangelo (1475-1564) with hideous fantastical creatures from a Netherlandish tradition owing to Hieronymus Bosch. This hybridity extends to the painter’s worldview. Floris was caught between two competing confessions. One, the doctrines and accepted iconography of the Catholic church, aligned with Habsburg imperial power. The other, the Protestant ideas circulating in his home town, the tolerant, cosmopolitan trading hub of Antwerp in the years leading up to the Dutch Revolt.[x]

The creature in the foreground, for example, boasts a rippling back, arms, obliques, legs, and calves. It also has a ridged, thorny spine, sharp claws protruding from its feet and heels, and the ears and hairy buttocks of a goat. Its muscles are on show as it drags a screaming man, arms bound by a metal chain, as if he were a sack of flour. The beast stares at him with black eyes set in a grimacing feline face. Just below, a sorrowful human looks up, hands clasped, pleading for mercy. To its right the damned moan as they are accosted by creatures with snakes for hair, or the gills and lizard-like fins.

Arendt writes that in order to be believed and to justify the punishment of their victims, Nazi propaganda had to “fabricate reality itself and make Jews look subhuman.”[xi] Arendt’s precise thought here draws on the Biblical idea that man is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-7). For Augustine, the image of God is present in the saving grace of the elect. This spurs us to desire to perfect ourselves by remembering our communion with God before the Fall.[xii]

This recollection, the young Arendt explains, appears as the love of God and the desire to return to our own origins in Him. “To recall the past and to recollect myself from dispersion is the same as to ‘confess,’” she writes. “And what leads to remembrance, recollection, and confession is not the desire for the ‘happy life’ […] but the quest for the origin of existence, for the One who “made me.”[xiii] Sontag describes seeing pictures from Bergen-Belsen and Dachau with a mournful tone, as if her loss of youthful innocence was a separation as deep and traumatic as the fall of humanity itself. Whatever we make of this, the split is only amplified in the concept of “subhumanity” in Arendt and Floris.

To be “subhuman” is to be a broken image of God in man. This is when our creaturely lives are severed from the memory of God the creator. This is in line with the teaching of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). Clairvaux taught that humans become beastly when an outward layer of sin obscures the image of God in man. This model which lasted until the 16th century. Contemporary viewers of Floris’s Last Judgment would be as familiar with this idea as well as human beauty as a reflection of divinity.

Twenty-first century viewers, however, might find the true source of horror in The Last Judgment elsewhere. It cannot come from the hybrid creatures, which mean little to us now. We postmoderns—if that is what we are—are illiterate when it comes to allegory. The hideousness of these beasts, meanwhile, has no relation to what Arendt means by the sub-humanity of victims of Nazi brutality. The true horror comes from elsewhere. It comes from what is happening on the left side of the image: the long line of humanity awaiting judgment.

“Totalitarian lawfulness,” Arendt explains, “defying legality and pretending to establish the direct reign of justice on earth, executes the law of History or of Nature without translating it into standards of right and wrong for individual behaviour.”[xiv] This is just one reason why totalitarianism is so monstrous. Totalitarian regimes first comes up with unanswerable laws of history. The Nazis, for example, use a faulty concept of “nature” to justify the destruction of “inferior races”. For the Bolsheviks, however, the iron laws of history justify the invention and destruction of “dying classes”. In both cases, the regime is prepared to fulfill these laws by sacrificing whoever falls on the wrong side of them. That means anyone and everyone, up to and including the whole of humanity. To the totalitarian gaze, the individual means nothing. Nor do their friends, families, or anyone they ever loved or cared about. This is what we see in the line of people waiting to be judged in Floris’s painting.

This an example of one-point perspective, when the picture plane gives an illusion of real space with one vanishing point at the horizon. Floris was a technical master and an excellent draughtsman. No matter how good he was, however, he could not render each face in the crowd as each figure gets proportionally smaller. This is the true source of horror for us. Not because of how they look, nor how they behave. The horror comes, however, because each fearful, naked person look superfluous in the face of the “suprahuman forces”[xv] of history. They gradually congeal into a single faceless beam of light, all present in one body and sharing one destiny, waiting to be destroyed.

It would, of course, be anachronistic to strip this painting of all context and say it anticipates the Holocaust or anything like it. In the 16th century Netherlandish social and religious imaginary, the painting shows us divine justice looks like. Secular eyes, our moral vision in part shaped by the Holocaust can read it another way. Arendt contributes to this alternative reading with the claim that totalitarian regimes replace both the eternal sources of divine authority and changeable positive laws with “laws of movement”.
Totalitarian terror, for Arendt, destroys human plurality as the regime reconstructs humanity to conform to its ideal. Arendt writes that

In a perfect totalitarian government, where all men have become One Man, where all action aims at the acceleration of the movement of nature or history, where every single act is the execution of a death sentence which Nature or History has already pronounced, that is, under conditions where terror can be completely relied upon to keep the movement in constant motion, no principle of action separate from its essence would be needed at all.[xvi]

In Floris’s line of humans, we see people confronted with judgment and death without even the possibility of grace. Arendt says that this possibility made even the most horrifying visions of hell tolerable to people a few hundred years ago.[xvii] The world after the concentration camps is one where we know all things are possible. This is a world where humans can be processed, tortured, and put to death in ways that even Floris’s hellish imagination could never anticipate. This can still wound us in just the way Sontag says.

[i] Susan Sontag, “In Plato’s Cave”, in On Photography (1977), (London: Penguin, 2008), p.20

[ii] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), (London: Penguin, 2016), p.585

[iii] Hannah Arendt, “The Image of Hell” (1946), in Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954: Formation, Exile, and Totalitarianism, ed. by Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1994), pp.197-205. This essay reviewed two books. One was The Black Book: The Nazi Crime Against the Jewish People, complied by the World Jewish Congress, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, the Vaad Luemi, and the American Committee of Jewish Writers, and Scientists. The other was Max Weinreich’s Hitler’s Professors.

[iv] J.M. Bernstein, “Bare Life, Bearing Witness: Auschwitz and the Pornography of Horror”, Parallax, Vol. 10, No.1, 2-16

[v] Bernstein, “Bare Life, Bearing Witness,” p.11

[vi] Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p.583

[vii] Arendt, “The Image of Hell”, p.198

[viii] The English translation I have used comes from The New Standard Revised Version, which serves devotional, liturgical, and scholarly needs. Since the book of Wisdom is left out of the Protestant canon, there is no translation of this passage in the King James Version.

[ix] Edward H. Wouk, Frans Floris (1519/20-1570): Imagining a Northern Renaissance (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2018)

[x] Edward H. Wouk, Frans Floris, pp.1ff

[xi] Arendt, “The Image of Hell”, p.199

[xii] Augustine, On the Trinity: Books 8-15, trans. by Stephen McKenna, ed. by Gareth B. Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp.153-4, Augustine, De Genesi ad Litteratum, XII.28.56

[xiii] Hannah Arendt, Love and Saint Augustine (1929), ed. by Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott & Judith Chelius Stark, (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1996), p.49

[xiv] Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, pp.606-7

[xv] Arendt, ibid., p.606

[xvi] Ibid., p.613

[xvii] Ibid. p.585