(1) Josef Stammel, The Four Last Things: Death
This is represented by a human being at the end of their life in the form of an old male pilgrim, with cross, staff and scallop shell. Behind him hovers a winged skeleton as the personification of death. This gruesome figure holds in its right hand a winged hourglass to indicate that the sands of life have run out. In its left, it holds a dagger as a symbol of the suddenness of death. The small putti at the feet of the dying man are also holding relevant ‘vanitas’ attributes (soap bubble, empty shell, extinguished and broken candle) to indicate the transience of all things on Earth. And there is the ‘Apple of Sodom’ that falls to dust as soon as it is touched. This motif evokes the words spoken during the Ash Wednesday service: “Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return!”
(2) Josef Stammel, The Four Last Things: Resurrection (also Judgement)
Still partly wrapped in his shroud, the figure of a young man rises from his grave accompanied by a putto as angel. Placed over his head is a rainbow on which the resurrected Christ is enthroned as Judge of the World. No judgement has yet been made in the case of the young man, whose gaze is directed at the demon cowering at his feet. This figure represents the prosecutor ‒ the advocate of the Devil ‒ he wears glasses and is being pushed to one side under the weight of a mighty tome that records the deeds of the individual undergoing judgement. To the right, opposite the ‘Admont library devil’ as he is called, can be seen a displaced grave stone. It shows a skull, a candle in the process of being extinguished, the date ‘1760’ (presumably the date on which all the figures were completed) and the initials ‘ST’ for ‘Stammel’.
(3) Josef Stammel, The Four Last Things: Hell
Once judged, each soul then passes to Heaven or to Hell as appropriate. The allegory of Hell consists of two forceful main figures and several minor accompanying figures. A mature and naked man ‒ one of the damned souls ‒ rides on the shoulders of a macabre hybrid creature. It is part animal, part human, part man and part woman. Both figures are surrounded by flames that seem to draw them down into the dragon-headed jaws of Hell. The face of the damned soul expresses both rage and fear. In his raised right hand he holds a serpent that has formed a circle and is biting its own tail ‒ a symbol of eternity. In his left, he grasps a dagger in an attempt to defend himself. A worm bites his breast in the region of the heart.
In the lower part of the sculpture and provided as a warning of the reasons for the descent to Hell are bust-like heads symbolic of the vices: pride wearing a peacock cap and feathers, sloth as a sleeping child wearing a nightcap and with a tiny hippo on his head, avarice with a cap made of coins and a devil peering over his shoulder and gluttony with brandy bottle and sausages.
‘Hell’ is one of the most powerful and eloquent but also most unconventional and complex of the works of Josef Stammel. Images such as that of the Devil in Albrecht Dürer’s engraving ‘Knight, Death and the Devil’ (1513) and Bernini’s marble bust ‘Anima Damnata’ (1616) seem here to have been assimilated and transformed by Stammel’s own imagination into a coherent artistic concept.
(4) Josef Stammel, The Four Last Things: Heaven
The conceptual highpoint of ‘The Four Last Things’ is the allegory of Heaven. Heaven is represented by the epitome of attractiveness magnificently clothed and jewelled and accompanied by several supporter figures. Dressed as a crowned bride in the vestments of heavenly magnificence, this androgynous figure is being lifted up to Heaven by a slender angel. The figure’s transfigured gaze is directed away from the earthly observer into the higher spheres. In the elevated left hand, there is a heart to represent the unshakeable nature of the figure’s faith. In the aureole over the head is the symbol of the Holy Trinity. The figure bears a flaming star and richly decorated cross on its breast. Below the crown on the figure’s forehead is the Greek letter ‘T’ (Tau), showing that the figure is one of the just (Ezekiel 9, 3 -4).
As in the case of Bernini, the ‘Anima Beata’ represents the counterpart to the ‘Anima Damnata’ in Hell. At the foot of the figure are seated three putti on a cloud bank. These allegories of three virtues (fasting, prayer and charity) explain the judgement of Heaven’s court and contrast with the vices represented in the Hell sculpture. Here again there is a circular serpent but this time it has a positive meaning as a symbol of eternal bliss; it is being held by the putto seated in the centre of the cloud bank.