Death and the Fate of the Soul in Byzantium: Theologies, Liturgies, Images

Athon. Dionysiou 65, fol. 11v, detail showing the weighing of deeds. Photo by Robert S. Nelson

Date: Oct 12, 2017 Time: 6:15 PM–7:45 PM Location: Harvard Faculty Club Address: 20 Quincy Street Cambridge, MA 02138

Vasileios Marinis investigates what the Byzantines believe happened to the soul after death and until the final resurrection and Last Judgment using liturgical, theological, literary, and material evidence.

While on a trip to Italy in the beginning of the thirteenth century, George Bardanes, metropolitan of Kerkyra (d. ca. 1240), had an informal discussion about the fate of the soul after death with Fra Bartolomeo, a Franciscan who was curious about Byzantine beliefs. Bardanes responded that, because the Last Judgment had not occurred and Christ had not yet separated the righteous from the sinners, the souls of the departed had not yet received their final and eternal recompense. Rather, they resided in temporary locations, where they experienced a foretaste of their punishments or their rewards, of various kinds, allocated presumably according to their conduct in life. Bardanes’s response reflects a desire for an efficiently structured and morally logical afterlife, but it leaves many issues unresolved. How, and just as importantly, by whom are souls assigned their provisional locations and respective ordeals or delights? Is this decision final or revocable? How does one’s soul get to its interim assignment? Are these physical locations, spiritual states, or both?  What do they look like? What is the purpose of praying for the dead? In short, what did the Byzantines believe happened to the soul after death and until the final resurrection and Last Judgment?

In order to answer this question, this lecture investigates a variety of liturgical, theological, literary, and material evidence. It also places the imagery of the afterlife, both literary and artistic, within the context of Byzantine culture, spirituality, and soteriology.

Sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture and Harvard University Standing Committee on Medieval Studies.

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