This lot has been imported from outside of the UK … Read more PROPERTY FROM THE BARBARA PIASECKA JOHNSON COLLECTION

The Descent into Limbo

The Descent into Limbo
engraving, circa 1475-1480, on laid paper, without watermark, a fine, strong impression of this extremely rare, large and important print, richly inked and with strong contrasts, printing with fine wiping marks and smudges of ink in places, printed in France circa 1540-45, the sheet trimmed into the subject on all sides, with some skilfull repairs in places
Sheet 415 x 322 mm.
With Colnaghi & Co., London (their stocknumber C. 7533 in pencil verso).
With David Tunick, New York.
Acquired from the above in 1989.
A. M. Hind, Early Italian Engravings, Bernard Quaritch Ltd., London, 1948, no. 9 (another impression illustrated).
J. A. Levenson, K. Oberhuber & J. L. Sheenan, Early Italian Engravings, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1973, n. 80 (another impression illustrated).
D. Landau, S. Boorsch, J. Martineau (ed.), Andrea Mantegna, The Royal Academy of Arts, London, & The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (exh. cat.), 1992, no. 67a (this impression illustrated).
R. Signorini, 'New Findings about Andrea Mantegna: His Son Ludovico's Post-mortem Inventory (1510)', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, LIX, 1996, p. 103-338.
S. Fletcher, 'A Closer Look at Mantegna's Prints', Print Quarterly, XVII, No. 1, 2001, p. 3-41.
Royal Castle, Warsaw, Opus Sacrum, 1990, no. 11.
The Royal Academy of Arts, London, Andrea Mantegna, 1992, no. 67a.
Royal Castle, Warsaw, The Masters of Drawing. Drawings from the Barbara Piasecka Johnson Collection, 2010 - 2011, p. 110.
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This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.

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Lot Essay

Based on a drawing attributed to Andrea Mantegna in the collection of the Bibiothèque de l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris (see Martineau no. 66), The Descent into Limbo belongs, together with The Flagellation with a Pavement (B. 1), The Deposition (B. 4) and The Entombment with Four Birds (B. 2) to a group of engravings by or from the workshop of Mantegna relating to the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.
The episode of the Descent into Limbo (or the Harrowing of Hell) is not narrated but only briefly alluded in some verses of the New Testament. 'But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive’ (1 Corinthians 15).
It appeared more clearly in the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus, dating around the 4th or 5th century AD. By the 15th century it was an established part of the Christian belief. The subject was common in the Byzantine Church, as an equivalent of the Resurrection (in Greek Anastasis), an image of His victory over Sin and Death. In the western church, the theme first gained favour in works of popular devotion and eventually found its way more established ecclesiastical art, such as the fresco cycles of Giotto and Duccio di Buoninsegna. Two representations that must have caught the interest of Mantegna are a small panel attributed to Jacopo Bellini (Museo Civico, Padua), associated with the predella of the altearpiece of the Gattamelata Chapel (now dismantled, formerly in the Basilica di Sant' Antonio in Padua) and a part of a bronze pulpit made by Donatello in San Lorenzo, Florence, which he would have seen on his visit in 1466, the year of the sculptor's death.
Mantegna was manifestly fascinated by the subject and he represented it in different media and on various occasions. He centred the present composition on the figure of Christ standing on the shattered gates of Hell, holding the staff and banner of the Resurrection. Mantegna’s radical innovation of depicting Christ from behind, directly in front of the abyss and not from the side as in Byzantine and Italian antecedents, has the dramatic effect of involving the viewer in Christ’s act of salvation, as he reaches down to liberate the souls of the dead.
This act of reversing the Fall is traditionally reflected in the order in which Christ frees the souls: first Adam and Eve, then the Patriarchs and the Prophets; a prayerful throng emerging from the depths of Hell. Mantegna’s representation, however, is more nuanced and emotionally complex than earlier iterations. The moment of his triumphant arrival in Limbo has passed. Adam and Eve, along with an unidentified figure, have already been freed and stand dejectedly to the right of Christ, while the Saviour continues his redemptive work, reaching down to two outlined figures. Beset by the routed devils and the clamour of their sounding horns, Mantegna’s newly liberated captives seem traumatised and penitential, rather than joyful and relieved. Only the figure of a young man bearing a cross at left, identified as the thief to whom Christ said ‘Today shalt thou be with me in paradise’, stands untroubled by the devilish antics. The desolate landscape and the formidable gateway to the abyss draw upon descriptions of Hades in classical mythology, evoking heroic tales of long and perilous journeys into the land of the dead.
While Mantegna’s invention of this extraordinary composition is undisputed, the attribution of the engraving has long been controversial and remains uncertain. David Landau noted that the engraving and drawing correspond so closely in scale and detail that the image must have been transferred to the plate via a tracing or some other mechanical means. Unusually, however, the engraver of The Descent into Limbo departed from the original composition in places: by extending the height of the rock façade and elaborating its cracked surface; by completing the figure of Eve to the right of Christ; by altering the features of the central demon and by re-positioning his left arm to accommodate the curved shape of his instrument. Although it has traditionally been ascribed to Mantegna’s workshop or school, Landau in 1992 proposed that The Descent into Limbo be added to the corpus of seven plates generally attributed to Mantegna himself, arguing that this degree of variation from the drawing was not indicative of a copyist. This view was contested by Suzanne Boorsch, who not only rejected the re-attribution but challenged Mantegna’s authorship of any engravings, suggesting instead that the entire engraved oeuvre was the work of an unidentified professional engraver. The discovery, in 2000, of a contract from 1475 between the artist and the goldsmith Gian Marco Cavalli (circa 1454–after 1508) in the state archives of Mantua confirmed Mantegna’s collaboration with at least one engraver. This remarkable document did not, however, specify any prints made by Cavalli - nor did it rule out that Mantegna had made some engravings himself. Following this documentary evidence, Shelley Fletcher in 2001 published the results of her microscopic examination of the seven plates traditionally attributed to Mantegna and the four questionable plates (see Print Quarterly, XXIII, no. 4, 2001). The comparison revealed subtle but distinct differences in the engraving technique between the two groups: she identified a single hand on the plates of the core group, which she considered to be Mantegna’s, and two separate hands on the four additional plates including The Descent into Limbo - presumably Cavalli and another, unknown engraver.
Whoever the engraver may have been, it is clear that the engravings were executed in the immediate surroundings of the artist and that he retained ultimate control over the plates. In 1996, Rodolfo Signorini published the estate inventory of Mantegna’s son Ludovico of 1510, which listed several of his father’s engraved plates, including plates of the core group as well as others, amongst them The Descent into Limbo and The Flagellation with a Pavement – the two prints being engraved on the two sides of the same plate.
The further history of the plates is equally intriguing: paper evidence has shown that the majority of impressions – only of those present in Ludovico’s estate – are not on Italian, but on French paper, leading Landau and Boorsch to conclude that the plates must have found their way from Mantua to France, and were reprinted there around 1540-45. Only a few impressions of The Descent into Limbo on early Italian paper are recorded, for instance at The Cleveland Museum of Art (inv. no. 1924.216), and The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (inv. no. 25.1114). The extreme scarcity of surviving 15th century impressions seems to preclude any sizeable lifetime edition and the crispness of the lines and details of the present sheet may be a further indication in support of this thesis.
Hind recorded a total of 45 impressions, only nine of which were in private hands at the time of publication in 1948. At least four of these have since entered public collections.
The present impression thus offers an opportunity to acquire one of the great engravings of the Italian Renaissance, as Suzanne Boorsch concluded: 'What cannot be doubted is that these prints, translating as they do Mantegna’s incisive drawing style into the intractable medium of the copper plate, are the climax of 15th century Italian printmaking and fully merit the admiration they have elicited over the centuries’. (S. Boorsch, ‘Mantegna and his Printmakers’, Andrea Mantegna, 1992, p. 64).
This fine impression was acquired by Barbara Piasecka Johnson in 1989 to complement the famous painting of the same subject, formerly from the collection of Sir Stephen Courtauld, which she had purchased only two years earlier. Both the painting and the engraving were included in the Mantegna exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, in 1992.

We would like to thank Catherine Jenkins, London, for her help in cataloguing this lot and for confirming the origin and date of the paper.

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