Sheep or Goat?


Monday’s Gospel reading is the parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him.
And he will separate them one from another,
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the king will say to those on his right,
‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply,
‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left,
‘Depart from me, you accursed,
into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome,
naked and you gave me no clothing,
ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
Then they will answer and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?’
He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you,
what you did not do for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me.’
And these will go off to eternal punishment,
but the righteous to eternal life.”

Our earliest image of this parable is from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo at Ravenna, a city near the Adriatic Sea in the northeast end of the Italian boot. We’ve seen an earlier mosaic from Ravenna’s mausoleum of Galla Placidia when we looked at images of Christ as the Good Shepherd. Ravenna was the capital city of the Western Roman Empire from 402 until that empire collapsed in 476. It then served as the capital of the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths until it was re-conquered in 540 by the Byzantine Empire. Sant’Apollinare Nuovo was originally built by the Ostrogoth ruler Theodoric as his palace chapel in the early 6th c., was later reconsecrated by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 561, and was given its present name in 856. The church has an extensive program of mosaics, some of which were destroyed in Byzantine times because they reflected beliefs of the heretical Arian sect. The layout of the basilica’s mosaics on the long sides of the nave includes narrative scenes from the life of Jesus at the top, with the central register filled by thirty-two figures of prophets, while a stately procession of male and female saints and martyrs takes up the bottom register.

Christ separating the sheep and goats, Ca. 6th century, mosaic, Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy.

Christ separating the sheep and goats, Ca. 6th century, mosaic, Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy.

The mosaic featured here is from the upper part of the north wall. Like all Byzantine mosaics, the gold background indicates sacred space. We see Jesus clothed in royal purple and seated on a throne. His head is crowned by a halo with a jeweled cross to further distinguish him. He is flanked by two angels, one in red and one in blue. Jesus extends his right hand toward the three sheep at his right as he stares out at the viewer, while ignoring the three goats at his left. The left side, or sinistra in Latin, was considered unlucky in ancient Greece and Rome, hence our word sinister. The message is clear: the sheep on the right will inherit the kingdom.

The setting, of course, is the Last Judgment, when Jesus will come in glory to judge between those who will live with Him in the kingdom and those who will go to eternal punishment in the fires of hell. The Last Judgment has been a fertile subject for numerous artists, though most of them omit the sheep and goats and instead show images of people. Following are a few of these works of art. Click on each one to see the fantastic details.

Last Judgment, Giotto, ca. 1305, fresco, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel, Padua, Italy.

Last Judgment, Giotto, ca. 1305, fresco, 1000 x 840 cm, Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel, Padua, Italy.

Giotto di Bondone is known as the father of the Renaissance because of the naturalism he introduced to art. He was commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni to paint his chapel, and it is rightly considered one of the greatest masterpieces of western art history. In Giotto’s fresco of the Last Judgment, from the west wall of the chapel, we see Christ enthroned in majesty and surrounded by a rainbow-colored mandorla. The angels, apostles, and heavenly host accompany him in the upper half of the painting, while the scene below shows the people being separated on either side of the cross of Christ, which resembles a balance. The elect on our left are accompanied by benevolent angels as they ascend to heaven, while on the right, the damned are being tortured by demons and devoured by Satan as torrents of fiery lava flow down towards them. At the center, beneath the cross, we see the kneeling patron, the banker Scrovegni, offering up a model of his chapel to three haloed figures (whose identities are disputed by scholars). Scrovegni hopes to win atonement by building this chapel since he is a banker, and at that time charging interest for loans (usury) was considered to be a sin by the Church. Scrovegni is, in essence, trying to avoid being one of the goats!

The Beaune Altarpiece (interior view), Rogier Van der Weyden, c. 1445–1450. 220cm x 548cm (excluding frames). Oil on oak, Hospices de Beaune, France.

The Beaune Altarpiece (interior view), Rogier Van der Weyden, c. 1445–1450. 220cm x 548cm (excluding frames). Oil on oak, Hôtel-Dieu, Beaune, France.

Rogier van der Weyden is one of my favorite artists so I simply had to include his spectacular altarpiece with the Last Judgment. It was created for the hospital at Beaune where the dying patients could view it as either a warning or hope. One of the first differences you may notice from the Giotto fresco is the brilliancy of the color. Van der Weyden and other northern painters were the first to experiment with an oil medium, laying on the pigments and oil in layers that created this saturated depth of color that Italian fresco technique lacked. Instead of the heavenly blue background of Giotto, here we have celestial golden clouds, similar to Byzantine mosaics. Rather than an entire painted wall, here there are actually fifteen separate paintings on nine wood panels that are hinged together to form a complex polyptych, or multi-panel painting that was folded up and only opened on feast days.  Christ is enthroned on a rainbow with the globe underneath his feet, his pierced hands gesturing upward to those on his right and downward to his left. Latin inscriptions quote from Matthew’s gospel: at left, “Come ye blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundations of the world” and at right, “Depart from me ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.”  Angels in the top panels carry the instruments of Christ’s Passion. The Archangel Michael weighs the souls, who depart to their respective gateways at right and left, and it seems that the damned/goats outnumber the blessed/sheep.


The Last Judgment, Michelangelo, 1536–1541, Fresco, 1370 cm × 1200 cm, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

The Last Judgment, Michelangelo,
1536–1541, Fresco, 1370 cm × 1200 cm,
Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Perhaps the best known painting of the Last Judgment is Michelangelo’s on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Compared to the serenity of Van der Weyden’s scene, this wall is a swirling mass of writhing bodies. Michelangelo began painting it a quarter century after completing the ceiling of the chapel and spent four years on it. The combination of nude flesh and blue sky gives the entire work a somewhat monochromatic appearance. The decision to paint all the figures nude in order to equalize their status created quite a stir, as did the muscular physique of Jesus, which was modeled on classical (ie. pagan) sculptures. After the death of Michelangelo, the nude figures were painted over with strategically placed drapery and the Council of Trent forbade nudity in religious art. Angels in the upper areas carry instruments of the Passion and Jesus, pictured against a glowing mandorla, is again surrounded by apostles, saints, and sundry other elect. But there are no orderly rows here, no tidy registers or neat lines of halos. The dramatic tension of the scene is palpable as all await the final judgment. Christ seems poised to smite the damned on his left, while the Virgin Mary looks down toward the saved. The blessed are rising toward heaven, some of them climbing from their grave, while the damned are being ferried by Charon and prodded by demons into hell. The figure that has always been the most tragic to me is the man just to the right of the trumpeting angels. He is crouching as if seated, with one hand over half his face while the uncovered eye reveals his terror as he realizes where he is going. One can almost feel his regret at that instant, as he is being dragged down to hell, as if he wishes he had been more of a sheep.


The Day of Judgment, William Blake, 1805, watercolor, Private collection.

The Day of Judgment, William Blake, 1805, watercolor, Private collection.

The watercolor, The Day of Judgment by William Blake, is one of several early designs he made for a lost 1808 painting, A Vision of the Last Judgment. Blake was an artist, a poet, and an eccentric who experienced visions, many of which are reflected in his work. He had deeply held beliefs but was antagonistic toward organized religion and developed his own private mythology with complex symbolism. Some have thought him insane. In art he is best known for his engravings, and his works often illustrated his own and others’ books. The Day of Judgment was created for Robert Blair’s The Grave, for which he did forty illustrations. The original works were thought to be lost but they were rediscovered in 2003, when they unfortunately were sold separately at auction. The Grave was concerned with “the final triumph of Resurrection over the powers of Death and Hell,” according to one reviewer. Blake’s own notes for the painting have survived and confirm that the central figure at the top is Christ on the Throne of Judgment. Most of the other details are a mix of biblical characters and his own esoteric concepts.


2 thoughts on “Sheep or Goat?

  1. Shirley Burley says:

    Hullo 🙂 It is also the Chinese New Year of the Sheep/Goat


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