The harrowing of hell, 1500

This depiction of the harrowing of hell is taken from a book for private devotion, painted in 1500 by the school known as the Circle of the Master of Antoine Rolin. It is presented as an aid to prayerful reflection and greater understanding. How wonderful to see, then, the glorious relishing of the horrors of hell, in a gothic style which might seem more at home in the novels of the Romantic Movement three centuries later.

The use of light and dark, the grim architecture of the rocks, half hiding both the wheels of torture and three wasted bodies on a gibbet, with terrible fires within, and a dark, menacing sky beyond, are all finely delineated; one monster is trampled underfoot, while the larger beast is forced to open its mouth to reveal the serried ranks of its captured humanity.

By contrast the figure of Christ is strikingly slim and sensitive, incongruously gentle in so harsh an environment. With one hand holding his staff and pointing to heaven, he holds out the other. Slightly enlarged, at the end of a slightly lengthened arm, it is here that we find the central focus of the entire scene.

With the mark of the nail clearly visible, he holds it out as both a sign of hope and promise, as well as the more traditional means of hauling the souls out of hell.

The eyes of all the (now faithful) souls are transfixed by this strange mark of victory, and in unity and innocence they worship.

Anthony Saville