An immensely popular subject in medieval and Renaissance art, the story of Christ’s descent to Limbo, known as the Harrowing of Hell, has no direct Biblical source although it had already become part of Christian dogma by the fourth century. The earliest accounts of this episode are found in one of Saint Augustine’s sermons and the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, but the most important written source for the Netherlandish artist who painted the present triptych would have been Jacobus de Voragine’s immensely popular Legenda aurea. The thirteenth-century text relates that immediately following the Crucifixion, 'as soon as Christ yielded up his spirit, his soul, united to his deity, went down to the depths of hell. When he came to the edge of darkness like some splendid, terrible raider, the impious infernal legions, terrified as they gazed on him, began to ask "Whence is he, so strong, so terrible, so splendid, so noble?...Who then is this, who comes to our gates so boldly, and not only has no fear of our torments but also frees others from our chains?”'(J. de Voragine, The Golden Legend, W.G. Ryan, trans., Princeton, 1993, I, p. 222). The souls whom Christ liberates have died without being able to receive Christian Sacraments and thus were forced wait in Limbo until the coming of the Messiah.
While no direct prototype for this tondo is known, the fantastic and monstrous creatures as well as the stylized figures recall the works of the great Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch. The woman, who modestly covers her pale nude body with a gesture inspired by the Venus Pudica, is Eve, a paragon of beauty contrasted with Adam, who appears here as a bearded, older man. In the background, on the ramparts of the ruined city gate, a tortured soul hangs from a scaffold while others are pursued by demons, silhouetted against the fiery Inferno. Bizarre, hybrid creatures fill the fiery lake, city walls and sky, combining features of lizards, birds, fish and bats to create a menagerie of evil beasts symbolizing sin and temptation, all common motifs in Bosch’s oeuvre.