The commentary of the cover

Justice and Mercy by Pierre-Marie Dumont

Saint Peter is identifiable by the keys to the Kingdom of heaven he bears. Saint Paul holds the sword that served to behead him when he suffered martyrdom on the Via Ostiensis outside Rome, extra moenia, probably in a.d. 67. Yet here the artist uses these two pillars of the Church to play out a scene of the particular judgment of the soul, a scene in which their attributes reflect their attributed roles as well.

After death, our bodies will return to dust as they await the resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgment. In the meantime, however, our immortal soul will first rise up to heaven to appear for particular judgment. In the imagery of the Middle Ages, the soul is received by the Archangel Michael and the fallen Archangel Lucifer. Using a set of scales, the two argue its eternal fate. On one balance, Lucifer places the evil deeds he has instigated while, on the other, Michael places its good deeds, inspired by the Holy Spirit. The weightier of the balances will determine the verdict: damnation or blessedness.

Souls destined for damnation are thrown forthwith into hell, while those destined for blessedness have one more challenge yet to face: Saints Peter and Paul will judge whether they go directly to paradise or instead to purgatory first, and, if so, the length of the sentence. To decide the case, a trial is presided over by Saint Paul, representing Justice, and Saint Peter, representing Mercy. Having turned back (Lk 22:32) from his threefold denial of Christ, Peter has received the keys to open the gates of paradise to the souls of the dead, while Saint Paul holds the sword of the word of God, a twoedged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart (Heb 4:12). With this sword, Paul judges the soul either worthy to enter directly into his master’s joy (cf. Mt 25:23), or deserving of a time of purification.

The formalized naïveté of this medieval depiction should not blind us to its unfathomable depths: in our times, when entertainment is king, it invites us to consider the gravity of human life. For us who are ruled by relativism, it is a reminder that our free will is sovereign, for better or for worse. And for ever. 

Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Master of Soriguerola (13th century), Episcopal Museum, Vic, Spain. © Photo Scala, Florence