Pourbus painted this Last Judgement for the courtroom of the Liberty of Bruges, a wide administrative area around the city. Christ is surrounded by saints while the graves on earth burst open and the dead rise again. He sends the chosen ones to heaven and the sinners to hell. The muscular figures are reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, with which Pourbus was familiar from prints.
The Last Judgement by Pieter Pourbus was commissioned by the Alderman’s Chamber of the Brugse Vrije (the Liberty of Bruges), an independent castellany located around Bruges, with its seat at the Burg in Bruges. Justice was administered in this chamber. The painting served as an exemplum iustitiae, a reminder for the judges to be fair-minded. After all, as the Last Judgement
shows, everyone, including the judges, will stand trial at the End of Time. A painting by Gillis van Tilborgh from 1656 portrays a court session at this location. Pourbus’s work is clearly recognizable on the left. It faces a sculpted fireplace with Charles V (on the right in the painting) at the centre, who is almost stepping out of his wooden frame into the room and thus features prominently. He is surrounded by his ancestors. These figures are part of an intricate iconographic scheme that emphasizes that Charles is the only true sovereign of the Brugse Vrije and that the judges administer justice in his name. Not only does God follow the judges’ actions, but the emperor is watching too.