Christ's Descent into Hell

Style of Hieronymus Bosch (Netherlandish, ca. 1550–60)

Oil on wood
21 x 46 in. (53.3 x 116.8 cm)
Credit Line:
Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1926
Accession Number:
  • Gallery Label

    Bosch’s fiery hell scenes remained enormously popular throughout Europe in the sixteenth century. A vast, desolate landscape with a burning city at the right and the river Styx at the left is the setting for this nightmarish vision, in which Christ breaks down the gates of hell to rescue the souls of the just. Gesturing in supplication towards him, Adam and Eve kneel on top of a ruinous tower. Behind them, Old Testament figures climb the winding stairs from the depths of hell, among them Abraham and Isaac with the sacrificial ram, and Noah with a model of the ark.

  • Catalogue Entry

    This scene illustrates a passage in the Gospel of Nicodemus from the Apocryphal New Testament (16:1–13; see Sintobin 1998). After the Crucifixion, Christ descended to the gates of Hell and demanded with a voice like thunder and wind, "Lift up your gates, Princes [of Hell] . . . and the King of Glory shall come in." With these words he rescued the souls of the just, the patriarchs, and the prophets from their torment. Christ is shown emerging through the gates that are embedded in a rocky formation. He is illuminated by a divine light that contrasts with the darkness of his surroundings. Demons try to prevent the gate from opening, in keeping with the apocryphal account in which the prince of Hell ordered his army to bar Christ from entering. Adam and Eve kneel on top of the ruins of a tower, directly across from the emerging Christ, gesturing in supplication. Behind them Old Testament figures make their way to the top of the ruins, carrying their attributes: Abraham and Isaac with the sacrificial ram, Noah with a model of the ark, Moses with the tablets of the law, David with a harp, the good thief from the Crucifixion with his cross, and Lot with his daughters. The man at the rear may be Diogenes, carrying his lantern. The view is from above, allowing for a full expanse of the highly detailed landscape with a burning city at the right and the river Styx at the left. Certain details, such as the owl and the flames, are traditional symbols of evil.

    This highly detailed nightmarish vision is stylistically related to the work of Hieronymus Bosch, who lived from 1450 to 1516, but whose work continued to inspire Hell scenes painted throughout the sixteenth century. Certain details in the MMA painting can be found in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (Museo del Prado, Madrid) and the Temptation of Saint Anthony (Museu Nacional de Arte Antigua, Lisbon). The combination of grotesque Boschian details and the realistic depiction of a burning city are characteristic of the second third of the sixteenth century (Sintobin 1998). At this time Hell landscapes were particularly popular due in part to a belief held by many in northern Europe that the end of the world was imminent, a belief that was reflected in contemporary literature. The work of Bosch was so widely copied that the famous Spanish Humanist Felipe de Guevara (died 1560) complained about the number of fraudulent images in Bosch’s style in his Commentarios de la pintura of about 1560. The Temptation of Saint Anthony by the Workshop of Herri met de Bles (MMA 1976.100.1) is another example of a Boschian Hell scene from this time.

    There has been some scholarly debate about the exact dating of this painting. Tolnay (1966) dates it 1530–50, while Corwin (1976) believes it to be part of the Bosch Revival group of the 1560s. Bergmans (1963) attributes a nearly identical painting (formerly in the Mangilli-Valmarana collection, Venice, now in a private collection in Brussels) to Gillis Mostaert, who died in 1560, and claims that the figure of Diogenes with a lantern does not appear in the North before 1559. The house in the shape of a head is a motif that comes from Bruegel’s drawing of the Temptation of Saint Anthony (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). This drawing dates to 1559, supporting the dating of the MMA painting to 1550–60. Dendrochronological analysis performed by Dr. Peter Klein of the University of Hamburg revealed that the wood panel was probably not usable before the beginning of the sixteenth century. However, this date does not necessarily exclude the potential date of several decades later, as wood panels were sometimes stored for long periods of time before they were used by painters.

    [2011; adapted from Sintobin 1998]

  • Provenance

    Philipp, Graf von Saint Genois, Vienna (before 1895); [Kominik, Prague, after 1895]; Frantisek Kominik, Prague (until 1926); [Hugo Feigl, Prague, 1926; sold to MMA]

  • Exhibition History

    Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. "30 Masterpieces: An Exhibition of Paintings from the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art," October 4–November 23, 1947, unnumbered cat.

    Iowa City. State University of Iowa, School of Fine Arts. "30 Masterpieces: An Exhibition of Paintings from the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art," January 9–March 31, 1948, unnumbered cat.

    Bloomington. Indiana University. "30 Masterpieces: An Exhibition of Paintings from the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art," April 18–May 16, 1948, no catalogue.

    Houston. University of St. Thomas. "Out of this World: An Exhibition of Fantastic Landscapes from the Renaissance to the Present," March 20–April 30, 1964, no. 2 (as School of Hieronymus Bosch, Dutch, first quarter of 16th century).

    New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 22, 1998–February 21, 1999, no. 64.

    New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Kara Walker at the Met: After the Deluge," March 21–August 6, 2006, no catalogue.

    New York. Rubin Museum of Art. "Remember That You Will Die: Death Across Cultures," March 19–August 9, 2010, no catalogue.

  • References

    [Adolph Donath?]. "Der neuentdeckte Hieronymus Bosch." Kunstwanderer (May 1926), pp. 378–79, ill., publishes it as a work by Hieronymus Bosch.

    Bryson Burroughs. "The Descent of Christ into Hell by Hieronymus Bosch." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 22 (November 1927), pp. 272–74, ill., as by Bosch, painted later than our Adoration of the Magi (acc. no. 13.26).

    Max J. Friedländer. "Geertgen van Haarlem und Hieronymus Bosch." Die altniederländische Malerei. 5, Berlin, 1927, p. 149, no. 88.

    Sam A. Lewisohn. Painters and Personality: A Collector's View of Modern Art. [New York], 1937, p. 185, pl. 85.

    Charles de Tolnay. Hieronymus Bosch. Basel, 1937, p. 105, no. 58, ists it with disputed works of Bosch; dates it about 1540–50.

    Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 123–24, ill.

    Erik Larsen. Les primitifs flamands au Musée Metropolitain de New York. Utrecht, 1960, pp. 98–99.

    S. Bergmans in Le Siècle de Bruegel: la peinture en Belgique au XVIe siècle. Exh. cat., Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. Brussels, 1963, pp. 136–37, attributes a nearly identical version (private collection, Brussels; formerly Mangilli-Valmarana collection, Venice) to Gillis Mostaert (1528-60), observing that the figure of Diogenes holding the lantern does not appear in the north before 1559, when Vascosan published a French translation of Plutarch's Lives.

    Charles de Tolnay. Hieronymus Bosch. reprint of 1965 ed. [New York], 1966, p. 385, no. 58, pl. 54, lists it among disputed works; dates it about 1530–50.

    Max J. Friedländer et al. "Geertgen tot Sint Jans and Jerome Bosch." Early Netherlandish Painting. 5, New York, 1969, p. 85, no. 88, pl. 74, gives it to Bosch.

    Nancy A. Corwin. "The Fire Landscape: Its Sources and Its Development from Bosch through Jan Brueghel I, with Special Emphasis on the Mid-Sixteenth Century Bosch "Revival"." PhD diss., University of Washington, Seattle, 1976, pp. 406–08, no. 144, pl. 173, calls it "Christ in Limbo" and ascribes it to a follower of Bosch; observes that although Gillis Mostaert is documented as having painted many versions of this subject, it does not resemble any known works of his.

    Gerd Unverfehrt. Hieronymus Bosch: Die Rezeption seiner Kunst im frühen 16. Jahrhundert. Berlin, 1980, p. 289, no. 158, fig. 185.

    Véronique Sintobin in From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1998, pp. 36, 254–56, no. 64, ill. (color), dates it about 1550–60 and notes that a detail suggesting a date in the 1550s or later is the conspicuous sinking house in the form of a gigantic head, a motif that appears in Bruegel's drawing of the Temptation of Saint Anthony, dated 1559 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).

    Mund et al. The Mayer van den Bergh Museum, Antwerp. Brussels, 2003, p. 401 n. 25.

  • See also
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History