The Beauty of His Return


Here we see a remarkable painting by Richard Mudariki. He is a black African, born in Zimbabwe, who later moved to South Africa. His painting is titled, The Last Judgement (2013), and it is obviously indebted to its namesake mural by Michelangelo. Yet, given the recognizable figures Mudariki has portrayed, his painting is obviously political in its conception. With this particular content, his title may seem ironic or even cynical. Especially because the painting diverges from recognizable biblical imagery, and appears to deviate from traditional Christian doctrine. And yet, if this is how we perceive it, our response may be based on an unexamined assumption. For when we think about the Last Judgement, and what it calls to account, we may have too narrow a starting point. Because our ‘final accounting before God’ will be about much more than simply our personal sins and private shortcomings.

At first it seems incongruous for the artist to portray Nelson Mandela in the central position where, following Michelangelo, we expect to see our Lord. The image of Queen Elizabeth, next to him, compounds our surprise. She has been placed in the position given to Mary, the Lord’s mother, in Michelangelo’s famous mural. Here, once again, our assumptions may be getting in the way. Whereas Michelangelo, following the tradition, set out to depict the entirety of the Last Judgement, Richard Mudariki is exploring a more limited and symbolic aspect of it. His rationale for portraying the scene in this way, may become clearer to us by considering a historical approach to the liturgy of Christian burial.

The casket of a priest is brought into a church for a funeral in a markedly different way from how a lay person’s casket is brought in. A lay person’s body is brought in feet first. So his or her body is poised facing liturgical east ~ the direction of the resurrection and Christ ‘s return at the end of time. But a priest ‘s body is brought in head first. This symbolizes how, at the second coming and the Final Judgement, priests face their people. This models our accountability, not only to our Lord but also to our people, whose spiritual care has been entrusted to us. Therefore, symbolically, we face them, rather than our Lord, at the Last Judgment.

And so, according to this interpretation, recognizable political and religious figures like Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Archbishop Tutu face us, the viewers of this painting. They all may appear worthy in our eyes. Yet, also facing us are upside-down figures like Adolf Hitler and, perhaps surprisingly, Margaret Thatcher. They are depicted as descending to be among the damned, when the final trumpets are blown, to be in the company of Che Guevara and Mao Tse Tung. In their affirmation or in their condemnation, all these figures face us because of the ‘ministry’ of public leadership that was entrusted to them.


This post is based on my homily for Advent 1, December 2, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here.

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