Follower of Hieronymus Bosch
1450 - 1516
The Harrowing of Hell
Oil on panel
43.6 × 58.3 cm. (17 ⅓ × 22 ⅞ in.)
FRAMED DIMENSIONS:62 x 76.2 cm. (24 3/8 x 30 in.)
PROVENANCE:J. L. Laverge, Rotterdam;
Private Collection, Great Britain.
FURTHER INFORMATION:Belonging to a group of paintings that tell the story of Christ in limbo, an episode taken from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, this painting was executed by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch. Very similar to three other versions, belonging respectively to the Royal Collection at Hampton Court Palace (inv. no. 941), the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (fig. 1. inv. no. 2715), and the Museum of Art in Indianapolis (fig. 2. inv. no. 63.10), this work was very probably also executed after one of the master's works that has since disappeared, which could well be the prototype for this series of copies. Dendrochronological analysis dates the present panel to circa 1498, indicating that it could have been used at the end of the first decade of the 16th century. While the sources on Bosch mention at least four similar subjects, two of which belonged to Philip II of Spain, none of them have reached us. Luckily, the taste for Bosch's universe lasted throughout the 16th century, and among the artists who worked in Bosch's tradition in order to feed this demand were Pieter Huys (active 1545 - 1584) and Jan Mandijn (Haarlem c. 1500 - c. 1560 Antwerp).
Popular during medieval times and disappearing with the arrival of mannerism, this subject evokes an underground world haunted by demons, where the righteous dead roam without the grace of God, as well as infants who have died before being baptised. The painting teems with macabre and comical scenes: nevertheless, Christ appears, pushing a heavy bronze door as written in the apocryphal text, brandishing the banner of the Resurrection. This iconography immediately draws the viewer into an eccentric, fantastical and barbaric world. Through the painting's multitude of details and vitality, this emblematic image of Bosch's genius demonstrates that the conventions of the Middle Ages are still as brilliant and fresh today.