Journal ARS 49 (2016) 2

Miroslava CIPOVOVÁ – Peter MEGYEŠI

A Loaf of Bread as a Redemptive Weight. On Medieval Iconography of the Weighing of Souls


Among the eschatological subjects in the Middle Ages were The Weighing of Souls, which represents belief in a fair judgment, immortality of soul, eternal life, and the possibility to influence the life after death with good deeds. In medieval pictures, this idea is represented by a figure of St. Michael Archangel, who evaluates the deeds of the deceased using a steelyard balance. There is no direct biblical source to this iconographic scheme; it is inspired by old Indo-European traditions and shaped by younger theological texts. Within the medieval iconography of the Weighing of Souls one can found images, which show one or more leafs of bread next to the soul on the pair of scales: mural paintings in Bolzano, Italy (1403), Rottenstuben, Germany (1440-1460), Mouřenec u Annína, Czech Republic (1310-1320), Poruba (c. 1400) and Sádok, Slovakia. The loafs of bred on the pair of scales and the figure of the angel can be seen in the tympanum of St Michael´s Chapel in Košice (1360-1380). The paper brings the identification of the specific iconographic type. The authors put the surprising weigh in the form of a loaf of bread, which outweighs the stones, millstones as well as demons´ efforts to turn the results of weight to their advantage, in connection with the story about a rich tax-collector Peter, who angrily threw a loaf of bread at the beggar asking for alms. Two days later he lay mortally ill and saw himself in a vision standing before the Judge. The loaf of bread given reluctantly balanced all his sins. This vision changed his life. The story of Peter was part of the legend of St. John the Merciful included in the Golden Legend by Jacob de Voragine. Considering the fact that the Golden Legend was one of the most popular books in the Middle Ages and provided a useful tool for preachers, it is highly probable that the occurrence of the loaf of bread on the scales in the iconography of the Weighing of Souls can be linked with the story about a tax-collector Peter. In the images of Psychostasia, bread represents a significant element: it points out one of the seven works of mercy – feed the hungry, and according to Christ´s words from the Gospel (Mt 25, 31-46) gives an eschatological dimension to the fulfilment of the work. The images combine the earthly actions and the promise of salvation, showing viewers their impact on eternal life. In connection with the motif of the loaf of bread on the scales, the relation between human deeds and life after death does not necessarily need to be linked only with the works of mercy. On September 29, St. Michael´s Feast day, the taxes were collected in most agricultural territories. The weighing of crop could remind people of weighing their souls. Thus, the images could serve as a visual tool for maintaining the discipline. The iconography of the Weighing of Souls with the loaf of bread on the scales represents a very impressive eschatological image: it shows a definitive sentence of the individual, with the loaf of bread on the pair of scales reminding us that our everyday actions can bring us salvation and determine our fate after death.