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The Last Judgement

Betsy Holleman Burke

Under the blue Tuscan sky a ten year old shepherd

picks up charcoal from a dead fire, sees the black marks

on his palms, draws circles on his arms, clouds on his legs,

a way to pass long hours watching sheep crop brush.


Soon cypress trees, scrub plants, a distant hill cover 

his arms and legs. He shapes the charcoal into sticks,

moves to the rocks surrounding him, sketches the solid

animal bodies, strong shoulders, rounded hind quarters,

distant hills, nearby valleys cover boulders. His work 

attracts visitors, includes a master painter from Florence. 


Here is Heaven. My gaze moves up, into the blue sky sprinkled 

with gold stars. Color from lapis lazuli, chosen for power, longevity,

ground by his hands, stained blue, nails near black. He experiments

with binders, egg, oil, works with a jewel box of colors from the earth

vermillion, azurite, malachite for clothing, burnished gold leaf for halos

angels’ wings. Only blue, not Byzantine Gold, the backdrop for his stories.

His solid figures gesture, drink from cups, weep, faces full of expression. 

Mary’s anguish breaks our hearts, we feel the touch of her hands, 

hear the din of horns. We are invited into the paintings, illustrations

of an imagined time, played out before a familiar Tuscan landscape,

complete with trees, rocks, a flock of sheep,

the ordinary.


Here is Hell.  The Last Judgment looms over us.  Christ’s stern face

watches the virtuous pass into Heaven, the vice-ridden move down

into torments for eternity. Heat radiates from the horned Devil 

rendered in charcoal.  Naked sinners tumble from his hands

into an abyss.   Saints and sycophants watch, halos secure.

We assume a place in the Heaven line, dismiss the Devil, an idea

as old as man, out of favor now.  Giotto believed, presented choices

for our consideration:

fortitude, temperance, justice, faith, charity

or stupidity, sloth, idolatry, envy?

Will stupidity lead us to Hell?  Or will it be envy?

This poem appeared in the Ekphrastic Review in 2018


The Last Judgement, by Giotto di Bondone, 1303

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