Book Review


Annemarie Weyl Carr

Ph.D., L.M.S.

President Emerita of the International Center of Medieval Art;
Director of Medieval Studies, University of Texas;
University Distinguished Professor of Art History Emerita and
Chair of the Division of Art History, Southern Methodist University

The Departure of the Soul is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book. It has two distinct if interrelated missions. One is to draw the perhaps reluctant reader into a quiet but sustaining reflection upon death as it figures in many centuries of Orthodox Christian thought. This is accomplished through the assembly of many, generally short, but concentrated and telling excerpts from Orthodox sacred literature, reflecting upon the experience of the soul at the hour of death, what Cyril of Alexandria memorably called the “dangerous hour.” Each excerpt is preceded by a brief but tender characterization of its source or author that illustrates the kind of inspiration that each gave to the lives it touched. The excerpts are grouped by genre – Scripture, liturgy, the writings of the saints and synods, saints’ lives, and experiences of lay people – and are in this sense homogeneous. But each group ranges widely in space and time, from the third to the current century, and across Europe and the Americas. Saturated as they are with their individual humanity and experience, the excerpts quickly become engrossing.

Passages of extraordinary beauty, like a poetic prayer by Symeon the New Theologian; stories of irresistible humanity like bishop Amphilochios’ fourth-century account of Christ and the Devil’s one-on-one exchange about a deacon irresistibly drawn to both sex and frantic confession; persons of memorable spiritual resonance – Theophan the Recluse, Elder Ephraim, Porphyrios of Kavsokalyvia; striking recurrences of themes from century to century engage both mind and sensibilities. Adjacent passages of radically different date may startle with their similarity; passages of apparently similar content may arrest with the contrasting messages they expose.

As the pages pass, a compelling sense of an organic and living tradition emerges, connecting across the centuries in echoed insights, themes, and emphases. Image-rich, it draws on sensory terminology of spaces, distances, journeys, paths, lights, books, records, ledgers, skin colors, and sounds to lend clarity to its messages. Themes that are harsh in one iteration deepen into beauty in another. Death, as the book’s authors say, characteristically invites our resistance. But it is as impenetrable as a mirror. Rather than resistance, it invites reflection. The rich weave of lives and texts fosters reflection beautifully.

The book’s second mission is to mount a passionate – indeed, ferocious, academically unassailable – defense of the imagery of aerial tollbooths that appears throughout the texts compiled here. The tollbooths are a way to image the ordeal of the “particular judgment” confronted by the soul at the hour of death, when its entire life is reviewed. Demonic accusers swarm about it, interrogating it fiercely to see if it is bearing with it any contraband – any passions that cannot enter heaven, but that belong rightfully to their own, demonic realm. Each kind of transgression has its own tollgate, with its own body of demonic accusers, who come bearing meticulous ledgers of the soul’s every sin. Only if the soul can counterbalance these debits with the credit of good deeds can it pass upward; only if it passes each accusation in turn can it attain heaven. If its case is clouded, the demons can sue in the court of Christ; if it fails, it is thrust into the bitter gloom of Hades to await the Last Judgment amid demons.

The grim image of the tollbooths was challenged in the 1970s by the Canadian deacon Lev Puhalo, who argued that it was a tenth-century import into Orthodox tradition, devoid of patristic roots, fostering an erroneous understanding of the “particular judgment” as carried out by demons rather than by God, and drawn from heterodox, Bogomil sources. Puhalo’s attack took three avenues. Two were textual, denying any patristic or liturgical use of the image, and attacking those medieval sources that did use it, above all the tenth-century Life of St. Basil the Younger. As the authors of this book address these literary challenges, it becomes clear that the excerpts of the book’s first part constitute a carefully assembled dossier, providing a precisely focused testimony to the clarity and persistence with which the image of the tollbooths has run through Orthodox Christian writing. The tollbooths figure from the fourth century into the present, in the liturgy and the writings of the saints, and even in certain Latin texts. By the same token, the texts Puhalo challenged prove either to have been falsified by him, or to elude his historical claims. His third avenue of attack, however, was not textual: he turned to the visual imagery of icons of the Last Judgment, and challenged the validity of any component that referred to either the “particular judgment” in general, or tollbooths in particular.

That Puhalo should turn to the Last Judgment icons is less surprising than it might seem. Not only are icons embraced by the Church as dogmatically correct, but the Last Judgment icons are probably the fullest and most comprehensive enunciation of Orthodox theology on the subject of the judgment of the dead that exists in any form. As the brilliantly rich and colorful plates here show, they are compendious, complex, and challenging. In responding to Puhalo, the book adopts for icons much the same strategy as with texts: it assembles a truly remarkable dossier of visual examples. No publication to date has gathered such a range of images, and pursued the scholarship on their iconography so conscientiously. Puhalo had two targets: the image of the tollbooths itself, which survives for the first time in a Russian icon of the fifteenth century, and the image of the scale of justice, in which angels and demons weigh in a scale the ledgers recording an individual’s deeds, both good and bad. Both images belong to the “particular judgment.” He argues that neither belonged to the Byzantine imagery of the Last Judgment.

The authors show that Puhalo was far out of his depth here. Unaware of many images, he scandalously fiddled others. The scale of justice does have deep Byzantine precedent, and the late emergence of the tollbooths in imagery has no bearing on the date of their appearance in texts. But it is also true that the holy icons are, in their way, less tractable than words. Though both the scale and the tollbooths appear in Last Judgment images, neither finds a truly coherent place in them, for neither belongs to the Last Judgment; they belong to the hour of death. Their presence serves to incorporate into the picture the abiding question of the relationship between the provisional judgment at death and the everlasting judgment at the Last Judgment. The bond between the two is never clear, and the authors of the book take care to remind readers that they are not the same. Puhalo was categorically wrong that the scale and tollbooths were extraneous to Orthodox tradition. But he was not wrong in finding them ancillary to the Last Judgment. In fact, the relation of the “particular judgment” to the Last Judgment has never been fully explicated in Orthodox theology, in words or images.

The conjunction of seriously examined verbal and visual testimony here yields a particularly thought-provoking whole, as the text’s initial concentration on judgment at the hour of death, with its opalescent range of darker and more pearly tones, opens into the broader question of the judgment at the end of time. The authors of this book argue with passionate commitment in defense of the “particular judgment.” By including the Last Judgment in the book, too, they pose with fascinating clarity the question of where within the scheme of eternity the “particular judgment” stands, and what makes it – for all its ferocity – so very precious.

Annemarie Weyl Carr, Ph.D. is a renowned expert in the field of Byzantine Art and Iconography, having held prodigious academic positions as the President of the International Center of Medieval Art; University Distinguished Professor of Art History Emerita and Chair of the Division of Art History at Southern Methodist University; Director of Medieval Studies, University of Texas; Fellow and Visiting Scholar of Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection Trustees for Harvard University; and a Member of the Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton; as well as prestigious visiting professorships at the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, the University of Delaware, and the University of Pittsburgh.

The recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Phi Beta Kappa Perrine Prize for Teaching and Research; Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching; Meadows Foundation Distinguished Teaching Fellowship; Distinguished Teaching of Art History Award; and the Mellon Fellowship, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, University of Toronto, Dr. Carr is also a member of the United States National Committee for Byzantine Studies; the Medieval Academy of America; the North American Patristics Society; the Canadian Committee of Byzantinists; and the Governing Board of the Byzantine Studies Conference. Author of dozens of academic papers and several books on Byzantine Art, she is now working on the afterlife of Byzantine icons, a study of their continued dynamic influence across cultures and time.