General premise


The painting by Kiko Argüello, initiator with Carmen Hernandez of the Neo-catechumenal Way, is part of the tradition of oriental iconography. It is a tradition that the West has lost, and it is important to recover it at this moment of profound aesthetic crisis in the Western sacred art.

In the East, iconography is not an accessory element, an ornament that is an end in itself, but an integral and essential part of the liturgy: it is an announcement, the proclamation of Jesus Christ. All the great Eastern churches are rich in icons, and at the beginning of each "divine liturgy", that is, of the Eucharist, there is the incensing of the icons, which are the announcement of the reality of heaven. The gold that abounds in icons, in the background, in the decorations, in the images, means the announcement of a celestial reality. The painter therefore cannot do what he wants, to indulge himself as he believes, perhaps in the name of a supposed autonomy of an artistic truth, as some artists say. Each sacred theme (e.g. the annunciation) for the oriental painter is characterized by a composition, a series of pre-established, traditional, already fixed images in a sort of canon. To paint, he must first have a mandate from the bishop. Then a serious spiritual preparation is needed: the painter prays, fasts, confesses, communicates, and lives with great intensity this period. In the East there are many saints who have painted icons. Finally, the painter does not paint the theme entrusted to him as he wishes, but he receives it from the iconographic tradition and makes a whole series of elements already fixed, canonical. What is then the artist’s contribution? It will consist of the form he gives to that composition, for example. in the choice and distribution of colors, warm and cold, in the design of the faces, in short in all that he can place within these traditional lines. This point is essential.

 It was just mentioned the very serious crisis that characterizes the West, also with regard to aesthetics. This concerns both the iconography and the sacred architecture. Also in this last field everyone tends to do what he/she wants, without taking into account, in the construction of a church, how people should gather in that church, what an assembly of the people of God really is. Kiko Argüello has therefore felt the need to refer to the Eastern tradition, which is the oldest in the field of iconography. Here all art is at the service of the people of God, which is the Body of Christ. This is also seen in perspective. According to the classical perspective, the convergence point of the oriental iconography is not within the picture, but in the viewer. The painting converges outside itself, announces something to those who look at it, question them, ask them. There is a strong kerygmatic value, of an announcement. The painting is an announcement that reaches those who watch it, that arrives to those who stand before it.

Western art, at least as early as Giotto, has experienced a gradual shift away from the common  models of Eastern tradition, a sort of gradual separation. This has in time lead to a change of perspective, to the introduction of a geometric and scientific perspective, which has its point of convergence within the picture framework. In this way, the observer is introduced into the painting or fresco, which then depicts a past, concluded, mythical or historical event. A caesura is created between the life of the beholder and the represented image. In short, there is an attitude that we could call almost archaeological, in the sense that the image is in a certain way relegated to a past that is closed and distinct. In the oriental tradition, however, the painter has a completely opposite attitude: through a perspective that has its point of convergence outside the picture, the image reaches the viewer, calls him/her, makes him/her a strong announcement, it reaches him/her here and to-day, and speaks to his/her life.

Explanation of the painting.

Let us go to the theme of the painting. The choice of the theme of the Universal judgment is very important. We are in fact on the Mount of the Beatitudes, and in this mountain Jesus Christ has not just pronounced the Sermon on the Mount, but according to some exegetes of the Holy Scripture he has also sent the apostles from Galilee to the whole world: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the people, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you: behold, I am with you all the days until the end of the world "(Matthew 28, 19-20) ), that is, until Christ returns. Jesus Christ did not only send the apostles from here to the four sides of the earth, but he will reunite them at the end of time. We believe that there will be a judgment: this is a dogma, a truth of faith also professed in the Creed (Christ "becomes a judge of the living and the dead, and his kingdom has no end"). The sending made by Christ on the Mount of the Beatitudes is therefore very important because the apostles already carry a judgment to the extreme boundaries of the world. It is a judgment in which we also have partly passed through, because when the announcement of the Gospel has arrived to each one of us, this Good News has done a judgement on our life, has brought us to the truth. This judgment consisted in manifesting all that was within us, all that was laid and hidden in the most twisted folds: hypocrisy, deception, illusions, everything came out little by little, with a fight, but also somehow with a judgment. And the judgment of God on this concrete life has been a judgment of mercy.

In order to paint this Universal judgment, Kiko Argüello has studied many oriental icons on this theme, to grasp the essential elements, the compositional lines fixed in the tradition. At the end, the choice has fallen into an icon of the XVI century, a typical example of the Russian tradition, which presents the judgment in the last hour of humanity without letting transpiring any uneasiness or fear that may prevail the forces of evil. This painting is the fruit of a work by Kiko, together with a group of brothers, which lasted two weeks, it is a profound catechetical synthesis, totally based on Sacred Scripture. Let's see the single elements.

The figures are strictly distributed in various orders, based on their importance and their meaning. The central element of the composition is the mardorla of God the Father, towards which all the other plans converge. In fact, space is not divided into horizontal bands, as usually happens in icons, but in curved bands, which underline the tension towards God. The Father is depicted as an elder with a candid robe and white hair and is crowned by a dark blue and light green double halo (sign of the inaccessibility of divinity). This in turn is surrounded by three circles that indicate the various heavens, inside which are depicted, in some medallions, the celestial hierarchies. In the outermost circle, on the left, there is a human figure with an open scroll. This is the prophet Daniel. The reference is to chapter 7 of the book of Daniel, in which the prophet has the vision of an old man: "his garment - says Daniel - was as white as the snow and the hair of his head were as white as wool" (7, 9); in front of this figure "here appears on the clouds of the sky, one like a son of man" (7, 13). The Gospels show how Jesus Christ will apply to himself this mysterious figure of which the prophet Daniel speaks: Christ will call himself the "Son of Man", assuming this figure and the prophetic reality of the Old Testament and presenting himself to the people of Israel also for this aspect as the One who brings to fulfillment the Law and the Prophets.

Above the image of the Father there is a halo with a three-legged glass inside, filled with a blood-red colored liquid. Perhaps it is, in the original icon, an allusion to the cup of Solomon, which prefigures the Eucharistic cup, the blood of Christ that redeemed the world: in this way the mystery of the Incarnation, of the love of God for the man, is found at the summit of the celestial vision. But this cup is also the cup of God's justice. In the book of the prophet Jeremiah, a prophet who lives in a turbulent and terrible period, we often speak of the cup of God's justice, of God's anger, a cup that God will give to drink at the nations. This cup is mentioned in the Gospel: "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me!  “not as I want, but as you want! "(Mt 26.39) The chalice is also present architecturally in the construction of seven meters in height that is located outside the Domus Galilaeae. The red of this chalice dominates the whole painting, surrounding the Father, the Son, and opening itself in the center in a sort of impetuous red river that runs down to hell. In fact, God's justice comes from heaven to earth.

God created the universe and the earth with immense love and great harmony. There is a wise and profound balance that embraces everything, starting with the colors (for each red, for example, there is a complementary type of green), so that everything refers to another, in a polychrome and wonderful polyphony: the blue sky, the green of the branches of the trees, the rugged and impervious mountains, everything sings and proclaims the beauty of God's work. But this beauty is also a sign of an immense love of God, of his infinite goodness for man (universalia in unum convertuntur). This love of God for man is therefore also expressed in a harmonious beauty, has a profound aesthetic value, because God, who is Love, also wants to give pleasure to man in nature, in food, in the physical union between man and woman. But freedom, also a gift of God's love, allows man to deny all this, to despise it and to try to disfigure and destroy creation. But God will come to do justice on the earth and His justice must also be understood as a reconstruction of the universe.

At the right hand of the Father we have the image of the Paradise, of the heavenly Jerusalem. The images of saints with white robes are always present in the icons of the Last Judgment. There are two traditions in this regard. Indeed, heaven can be made present both through baptism and through the eucharist. Here at the center of the composition we have a baptistery, shaped like a cross, with the inside painted, in the form of clusters, the fruits of baptism: baptism brings us into the promised land, gives us eternal life, makes us children of God, engrafting in us the divine nature. In other icons there is another representation: the saints of the Paradise are drawn into groups, in the midst of each one of them there is a table with bread and wine. So, we have four groups, four eucharists celebrated at the same time (as do the communities in the Neo-catechumenal Way, in the wake of a tradition already present in the very ancient icons).

Then there is the host of the apostles, who have been sent to bring the judgment of God, a judgment of mercy, through the proclamation of the Gospel to all peoples, and which will also be present in the final judgment. Below this there is the image of the Nikopeia, the "All Saint", Mary, the beginning of the Church, who preceded us in the Heavens and whom the Christians precisely sing and pray as "Queen of Heaven". Next to her they appear, as witnesses, two angels of Paradise and that Good Thief, to whom Christ, on the cross, had said: "Today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23, 43). Another important element of Paradise is what Israel calls Abraham's womb. This is true for Israel, but it also applies to the Church (think of the parable of the rich Epulone who sees Lazarus in Abraham's womb, in Luke 16, 19-31, or when Jesus, in Matthew 8:11, says that "many will come from 'East and from West and will sit at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of Heaven "). In this painting Abraham's breast is present in the three patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), who are the image of the Paradise in the whole tradition of Israel and of the Church. Below the Patriarchs is the image of some monks, who are close to the Paradise because they already live a life of renunciation to the world. They are depicted with wings, like angels, following the directions of their founder (St. Anthony Abbot or another) and fly to Paradise, almost diving into it. The entrance to Paradise is the Holy Door, next to which is placed St. Peter, equipped with a key, who welcomes a group in procession, in which we recognize David, the apostles, St. Paul and some saints.

On the opposite side of the painting is the contrary of Paradise, the area of ​​combat and the fight against God. There is combat in history, a fight with the idols represented in the moon, in the sun and in the stars, depicted in the open scroll from two angels. This battle began already in the bosom of God, when some disobedient angels opposed and were then driven out by the archangels. The latter are represented in a green and blue circle, while they reject with their lances the rebellious angels in the black circle that contains the creatures deprived of the light of God. Between the sin of the angels and the heaven stands the cross, symbol of the redemption, that interrupted the fatal logic of sin and opened the gates of Paradise. In this battle Jesus Christ is therefore announced, the One who will dominate the world, and whose kingdom will have no end. He rests with his feet on a square table: as in ancient times it was thought that the earth had a square shape, so that this image indicates the lordship of Christ over history and over earth.

At the side of Christ, three angels carry the signs of the Passion: the chalice, the thorns and the nails. Next to the three crosses, there are the sponge and the spear. Below is a very incisive and modern image of the resurrection of the dead. St. Paul, in the First Letter to the Corinthians (15, 52), states that "the trumpet will sound and the dead will rise again incorruptible and we will be transformed". So here at the sound of the trumpets of the judgment the dead wrapped in white bandages are resurrecting: the tombs in fact will open and even the sea will return all the drowned.

To this final judgment all the nations of the earth will be summoned, as already prophesied in the Old Testament. Therefore, we have Moses, with the tables of the Law, who is indicating the Messiah to the peoples. The first to pass in the trial will be the Jews, who carry the tallit on their head and on their foreheads the box with the shemà, then the Muslims, indicated with the turban in the head, and then gradually all the others.

So we go down to the last part of the painting, below, where hell is represented: since if there is paradise, there is also hell. There is a horrible winged devil, all black, who holds on his knees the son of perdition, Judas Iscariot (according to what the whole Eastern Church says). The squares next to him indicate the penalties for the seven deadly sins in a symbolic and abstract form. In other paintings depicting the Last Judgment a specific and terrible eternal punishment is indicated for every sin: for example, the lustful, who in their whole life have sought the pleasure of the body, are immersed in a cauldron of boiling pitch, while the miser is attached to a boulder.

In the central part of the painting the Christ Pantokrator dominates. Next to him there are the two witnesses of Christ present in all the oriental icons: the Madonna, standing, who was a witness of Christ as she held him in her womb, and St. John the Baptist, who announced him and was the forerunner. But there are also two other characters who, aware of being at the origin of the entrance of sin in history, are interceding for the souls in this judgment: they are Adam and Eve. The latter, who has touched the fruit of the tree of life, has no longer the hands. Below them are all the elements of the judgment. The soul, in the first place. Two angels unravel all the facts of every man’s life, all the good and all the evil that he/she has done: every fact will be brought before God. The judgment of each life will be on the Gospel, placed above the ark of the alliance, facing the signs of the Passion. In this judgment there will be a strong fight between our guardian angel and the devil. Both Israel and the East attach great importance to the guardian angel, which instead our Western culture, victim of an empirical and rationalistic mentality, has sufficiently shelved. But the Church firmly believes in the existence of guardian angels as well as archangels and dedicates to them two important festivals. The feast of guardian angels and that of the archangels are not in fact inventions ad libitum, but a concrete sign of what the Church believes in. Lex orandi, lex credendi: everything the Church believes, the Church also prays it. An oriental theologian says that the guardian angel enormously loves the soul, who is like a companion, has a connaturality with her, defends her, talks tireless to her. Even at the end of the days of our life the guardian angel will defend us, will fight with us and for us. In this painting there is a scale: the demon wants to pull the scale on his side, to bring the soul down to hell, while the guardian angel with a trident hunts the devil and defends the soul.

Other elements must be considered. A great hand makes present the powerful right hand of God, as sung in the canticle of Moses and on every Easter vigil. It is the mighty arm of God who will do justice, and who is holding innocent people, depicted as children. In fact, God will always take the side of the innocent, of the last, of those who cannot defend themselves, and will render them justice. The last ones are the blessed of the Sermon on the Mount, which is the proclamation of the truth, as everyone is called to experience it in his/her own life. This justice that God will give them, indicates the profound eschatological sense that animates the Church. In this painting, the hand of God sustains the helpless, the children victims of abortions, those who have paid the consequences of the evils of history, for example in the concentration camps. Above, you can also see an ampoule, which collects all the tears of men. Isaiah says: "He will eliminate death forever, the Lord will wipe away the tears on every face" (Is 25, 8).

Finally, there is a figure that is perhaps the most interesting of the whole work, a figure that is like a key to understand this painting. It is a man tied to a column: a figure present in many icons and oriental frescoes, and which can represent the key to the human attitude in front of the Truth. It personifies the medium, limited, predominant type in humanity, to whom the celestial depth and the satanic abyss are equally foreign. The Eastern critic Trubeckoj wrote important pages on this character linked to a column in the lower part of the composition, on the border between heaven and hell. He is a lukewarm, mediocre man, tied to work, to the family, to his little problems, thinking that life is reduced to all these things, that this is the truth. It is a person who has adapted to his/her own niche, who has reduced his/her existence to an attempt to escape from suffering, who tries to have everything assured, not to complicate life. This man not care neither much nor little of God and the Madonna: the truth for him is what he can touch, possess, what he is bound to. Outside this limited horizon there is nothing else, nor does this man think that he will have to die and leave everything to which he is clinging. But the profound catechesis of this painting proclaims and confesses that Truth is not this column to which the figure is tied, but the whole composition as a whole. Truth is that life is a fight in the heart of history between two opposing realities: Paradise and Hell, Life and Death. This is the Truth: that Death and Life faced each other in a prodigious duel, and the Lord of life, who was dead, is now resurrected (Easter Sequence). The Church reminds us that no one has anything assured, no matter of how many good works he/she believes he/she has accomplished to date. Our little securities, the column to which we were or we are chained (money, affections, work, home, etc.) are not secure, guaranteed, and the facts of our life are there to show this to us concretely. Therefore, the Church invites us to start walking towards the Paradise Gate, because it is to Heaven that we are called. This painting is therefore an apocalypse, a revelation of the profound meaning of the history of every man, or rather of the whole of humanity, of the whole world. For this reason, in a medallion near the feet of Christ are depicted also four beasts, the beasts of which speak the book of the prophet Daniel and that of the Apocalypse, the beasts that overlook the history and dominate it for a certain period of time. They are the empires that follow one another, according to a conception of both biblical and Greco-Roman universal history: the Assyrian empire, the Babylonian empire, the Persian empire, the Macedonian empire, the Roman empire, etc. Each of these empires that from time to time have dominated the world, have come to think of being the only ones, to have total control of history, to dominate the world forever. But all the empires, even those of our day, are inevitably destined to decline and fall, to finally submit to Christ, the only Lord of history.