Souls of the blessed

It is one of the problems of science, and philosophy, that too much imagination gets in the way of truth. The ‘big bang’ is a wonderfully expressive concept, and a large part of the reason this modern cosmology is so widely accepted. Unfortunately the image is so widely accepted that more complex problems of physics surrounding the ‘naked singularity’ are now more difficult to discuss, not less.

The problem is not, however, a new one. The metaphysical understanding of the resurrection of the body, and the re-creation of our new self in the kingdom of God, has for two millennia been a challenge for theologians. Generally, such theological philosophy has been soberly and precisely presented.

Nevertheless, since the subject is the human person, and human persons are naturally interested in the promise of eternal life, some concessions to the imagination must be made. Artists are called upon to express the Christian hope in a way that engages the heart of the believer.

In this book of hours from Ghent in the late 1470s, we see a more sensitive depiction than we might expect, very different from the richly detailed Victorian presentations of heaven.

Each person is completely naked, in a simple pose of prayerful adoration. They are all weightless, so that while some are carried or stand on the shoulders of their angel, others are lifted on a hand, or in one case clasped like a child.

The angels’ robes, and above all their wings, are gorgeously coloured, as they bring their precious charges through the circles of light. Above them is the figure of the Father, his arms open in welcome. This is no Garden of Eden style paradise, as though heaven were an actual place. There is only the simplest depiction of a world beyond creation. All is focused on the persons, human, angelic and divine. This is the love and the hope to which we are called

Anthony Saville