But enough about millstones. You see, Jesus was using figurative language to describe that the punishment given to those who lead the little ones astray. And He said that it would be better for someone to have a millstone hung on his neck and then dropped into the depths of the sea. So, what does this mean?
Simple. Jesus was referring to Hell.
Not too long ago, I featured this artwork, which is of the Last Judgment. In that blog, I focused on the heavenly part and promised to talk about the hellish part at a later time. Well, guess what? That time has come! Take another look at it, but this time, focus on the right side of the artwork (to Jesus’s left) where it shows the people who are condemned to hell.
The people to Jesus’s left who have been initially condemned with Hell are horrified. Some of them are crying, others are vomiting blood. An angel, his sword stained with blood, forces a woman to go to the left, where she is received by a demon. Still more demons and snakes prowl about those who are damned and attack them in various morbid ways. While the people on the right have their heads up and are surrounded by love, the people on the left are sunk in despair.
Still, the horror of that judgment is nothing compared with the fate that awaits them in Hell. At least, when they are confronted by Jesus Christ, they are still in their clothes, they are still their own person, and while they are still aware of themselves and of their own lives, even though they stand condemned. Once in Hell? That privilege is taken away from them completely. Instead, they become one body in a horde of other bodies, distinguishable only by the particular torture that they are receiving at the time.
This is a horrifying picture of Hell in so many different ways. But, there is an additional level of horror for me, as a layperson. You see, as a layperson, I expect a lot from those who take religious vows and dedicate their lives to Christ. After all, they have deliberately taken vows to sacrifice their lives to Christ! How much more religious can you get?
And yet, Fra Angelico chose to depict many religious people in their frocks being condemned to Hell. Nor was this a matter of impiety either: Fra Angelico was actually a Dominican brother known to his contemporaries as Fra Giovanni. He was called Angelic to those who knew him, and the name stuck so that now we call him Fra Angelico. He was later declared Blessed by St. John Paul II and he consider to be the patron of artists.
So, his works are not meant to be impious at all — on the contrary. They were made to inspire repentance and real soul-searching.
Back then, the Church also faced many scandals, with impious clergy in every rank. Consider: this artwork was made in 1450. Less than a century later in 1517, Martin Luther would nail his 95 theses in the door, in what is considered the official beginning of the Reformation. This action would break out and split Europe and Christendom in de facto civil war that have impacted and shaped Europe in ways that we can still see today.
And now… today.
What we are seeing is not the first time the Church has seen scandal, nor the last time that the Church will encounter scandal. Evil exists and there are too many people — including those in our clergy — who would gladly engage in acts of evil given the chance, no matter how despicable and violent those acts are.
Yet, we can look at this artwork now, just as many Christians did centuries ago, and contemplate both the glory of the Judge and the joys of Heaven… as well as the pains and utter destruction of Hell. And we can remember that, one day, we too will be standing before the Judge and called to account for what we have done in this life.
May all of us repent for all our sins before then. And may Christ have mercy on us all.