The influence of Hieronymus Bosch had a lasting and widely felt impact on the visual arts throughout the sixteenth century. Perhaps the most inventive and individual painter working in the Netherlands during the late Middle Ages, Bosch’s unique imaginative powers and vivid pictorial vocabulary proved a source of constant inspiration and adaptation for painters seeking to imagine and visualise the otherworldly.
The event seems first to have appeared in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, written in the mid-fourth century, and was later adapted and disseminated by popular theological texts, like the Legenda Aurea of Jacobus Voragine. While no depictions of this subject by Bosch are known today, four apparently different pictures of this, or closely related subjects, are recorded in early sources. In 1574, a painting by Bosch showing ‘the Descent of Christ our Lord to Limbo’ was given by Philip II of Spain to the Escorial outside Madrid, with a further painting by the artist of ‘Christ after the Resurrection in Limbo, with many figures’ owned by the king upon his death. Another depiction of the same subject was listed in the 1595 inventory of Archduke Ernest of Austria (1553-1595) at Brussels, and a final one recorded by Karel van Mander in his famous Het Schilder-boeck (1604), which described a ‘Hell […] in which patriarchs are released’.
The present composition relates to a group of works, one also catalogued as Follower of Bosch, now in the Prado, Madrid, and two panels with an upright format in the Muzeum Narodowe, Warsaw and in the Detroit Institute of Arts, both of which have been attributed to the Flemish painter Herri met de Bles, who, along with painters like Jan Mandijn and Pieter Huys, painted a number of subjects directly inspired by Bosch. The present painter was evidently aware of the de Bles model. This painting demonstrates the enduring popularity that Bosch’s compositions continued to enjoy even toward the middle of the sixteenth century, and the ways in which later artists adapted, elaborated and reworked his ideas.