The Harrowing of Hell

Selections from the Nasher Museum of Art
April 1, 2009
The Harrowing of Hell,
Netherlandish,
The Harrowing of Hell,
Netherlandish,
c. 1600. Oil on panel.
78.25 x 52.25 inches.

This panel painting, with its arched format, would have been used as an altarpiece at the turn of the seventeenth century. The artist's name is not known, nor is it clear which European country it comes from.

It is certain, however, that it was produced for a Catholic church at the time of the Protestant Reformation, when the Church sought to restore its religious authority. The subject matter here portrays the Church's teachings on Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, as well as its Holy Sacrament at Catholic Mass, to save Christians from damnation in hell.

The Risen Christ is placed in the lower center; behind him is the cross with the inscription INRI (an abbreviation of the Latin for Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews) and symbols of the Passion: the scourge, the whip, the crown of thorns, the spear, and the sponge soaked with vinegar on a long reed, all instruments of torture during Christ's crucifixion.

The divine light of God the Father, with the Hebrew inscription Yahweh, shines overhead. In his left hand, Christ holds a white banner, and in his right, a hammer—both symbolizing his triumphant resurrection and victory in opening the gates of hell. He tramples beneath his feet a skeleton and a devil-beast, representations of death and sin.

Christ looks to the left, where Adam, Eve, and other Christians are being freed from purgatory, where they had been forced to stay until Christ's resurrection cleansed their souls of original sin. In the opposite, lower right corner, are the figures of the damned—sinners and non-believers—being forced into the jaws of a large beast, representing the fiery mouth of hell.

Depicted in the upper background of the painting are other motifs associated with Counter Reformation ideas: a priest celebrating a Eucharistic mass, the Ship of Fools, and the establishment of the new covenant of the Christian era, on the left, replacing the older Judaic law, on the right.