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Follower of Hieronymus Bosch
Follower of Hieronymus Bosch

The Harrowing of Hell

Follower of Hieronymus Bosch
The Harrowing of Hell
oil on panel
20 7/8 x 29 in. (52.8 x 73.7 cm.)
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 9 December 2004, lot 109.
Acquired by the father of the present owner.

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Lot Essay

This turbulent scene of Christ’s Descent in to Hell is likely to relate to a lost work by the great fifteenth-century visionary artist, Hieronymus Bosch. The composition was clearly popular and is known through several versions, all attributed to ‘Followers of Bosch’, most notably, that in the Royal Collection, Hampton Court, and that in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Bosch’s enduring influence in the Northern Netherlands, where these later works were probably made, continued well into the mid-sixteenth century and show the lasting demand for pictures in his highly idiosyncratic artistic language.

While no depictions of the subject by Bosch are known today, four apparently different pictures of this, or closely related subjects, are recorded in early sources: one, described as ‘the Descent of Christ our Lord to Limbo’, was given by Philip II of Spain to the Escorial outside Madrid in 1574; another picture of ‘Christ after the Resurrection in Limbo, with many figures’ was owned by the king at his death; a further work was listed in the 1595 inventory of Archduke Ernest of Austria (1553-1595) at Brussels; and a final one was recorded by Karel van Mander in his famous Het Schilder-boeck (1604), which described a ‘Hell […] in which patriarchs are released’ (see L. Campbell, The Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen. The Early Flemish Pictures, Cambridge, 1985, p. 11, under no. 7). It is likely that the present painting was derived from one of these lost works.

Christ’s Descent into Limbo was, like many Christian iconographies that were popularised during the Middle Ages, not based on the Biblical account of His life. The Harrowing of Hell, as it was also known, was described in the Gospel of Nicodemus in the Apocrypha, from which it was later adapted and disseminated in Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea. Following His Crucifixion, Christ descended in triumph in to Hell to bring salvation to the righteous who had died since the beginning of the world. Arriving at the entrance of Hell, He called out in a voice ‘as of thunder…Lift up your gates. . . and the King of Glory shall come in’ (Gospel of Nicodemus, 16:1). The figure of Christ, dressed in a red mantle and carrying a banner of victory, is shown smashing down the gates of Hell at centre left in this painting. However, the majority of the panel is given over to a disturbing account of the tumultuous mass of sinners and demons, where Bosch could give free reign to his fervent imagination.

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