The Harrowing of Hell, or Descent into Limbo, refers to the descent of Christ into Hell between the time of his Crucifixion and Resurrection in order to bring salvation to the righteous who had perished since the beginning of the world but never had the chance to receive the Holy Sacrament. At upper left in the present Harrowing, the Three Marys can be seen coming at dawn to Christ's tomb, which an astounded angel has just revealed to be empty. In the foreground, his robes swirling in the wind, Christ pulls the unjustly damned up out of Hell, including Moses, Eve, and John the Baptist, all identifiable at left. The vicious demons guarding these souls are furious with this turn of events, rending their hair in anguish and screeching almost audibly as they stoke the flames around them. The second panel depicts a somewhat later chronological moment: according to the New Testament, forty days after his Resurrection Christ was taken up into Heaven in the presence of his apostles. The present Ascension shows Christ, whose footprints on the grass below serve as one of the “proofs” of his real, physical presence on Earth after the Passion, carried up to Heaven in a flutter of angels. Grey clouds swirl about him but the viewer can make out his two-fingered gesture, an indication of his blessing over the figures below him (which include the Virgin Mary) and over the Church they are to build.
After firsthand examination in 1952, Dr. Ernst Buchner described these panels as “lucidly and pleasantly painted” and “well preserved”, and noted that two other pictures originally belonging to the same altarpiece were known to him. The first of these, a Pentecost (fig. 1) which has been slightly trimmed at the upper edge, resurfaced in recent years and is now in a private collection in Switzerland. Infrared photography taken of that and the present works confirm the same distinctive underdrawing appears in each; Dr. Bernd Konrad has also inspected the Pentecost firsthand, and confirms that it is attributable to the same hand responsible for the present Ascension of Christ and Harrowing of Hell. The fourth panel does not seem to have been photographed, but according to Buchner depicts The Last Judgment. In his brief expertise, Buchner had already related these three spirited panels to a large Coronation of the Virgin, dated 1524, now in the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich (WAF 1004), and noted that frescoes in the Parish Church in Weilheim, near Ulm, are related in style. Dr. Konrad has now confirmed that these frescoes and the panels described above are attributable to the same hand, known by the sobriquet The Master of the Weilheim Wreath of Roses. Dr. Konrad has also gone a step further, suggesting that this anonymous painter may be identifiable with the artist Thomas Schick II, who worked with his father Thomas I in Weilheim. Schick II's vigorous narrative style resembles that of other contemporary artists active in Ulm and the surrounding area, such as Matthias Gerung and Martin Schaffner. Given the date of the Munich Coronation and Weilheim frescoes, Dr. Konrad suggests the present works must also have been painted in the mid-1520s.