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The Harrowing of Hell

Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion

The Harrowing of Hell

Culture Group: German School
Culture: German
Date: c. 1600
Medium: Oil on panel
Dimensions:
78 1/4 x 52 1/4 inches (198.8 x 132.7 cm)
Classification: Painting
Credit Line: Museum purchase
Label Text:This altarpiece represents the Risen Christ after his death and burial, descending into Hell to release Adam and Eve and other just souls. Behind him is a cross with the symbols of the Passion, the final period of Jesus Christ’s life: a scourge, whip, crown of thorns, spear, and sponge filled with vinegar on a long reed. The divine light of God the Father shines overhead. In his left hand Christ holds a white banner, symbolizing his victorious Resurrection. The hammer in his right hand opened the Gates of Hell. He tramples original sin (a snake with an apple), death (a skeleton), and a horrific beast-devil, representing sin itself.

This painting was created during the Protestant Reformation (1517 – 1648), a time when the Catholic Church’s authority was questioned. Its imagery reinforces an important tenet of the Catholic faith, repeated in the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ…He suffered under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried. He descended into Hell…” Depicted in the upper background are other motifs associated with Counter-Reformation ideas: a priest celebrating Mass; the Ship of Fools; and the establishment of the New Covenant of the Christian era, replacing the older Judaic Law.
Provenance: Dr. Alfred Fröhlich, Vienna, by 1908. Purchased July 6, 2000 through (Sotheby's London, lot 287) by Duke University Museum of Art, now Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.
Object number: 2000.12.1