Art/ Collection/ Collection/ Art Object

Christ's Descent into Hell

Follower of Hieronymus Bosch (Netherlandish, second quarter 16th century)
Oil on wood
21 x 46 in. (53.3 x 116.8 cm)
Credit Line:
Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1926
Accession Number:
Not on view
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.
The Painting: This vividly populated panorama of the underworld presents Christ’s descent into the first circle of Hell (limbo) between his death on the cross and his Resurrection in order to redeem the souls of the Just of the Ancient Law. The Harrowing of Hell, as this event is often called, is outlined in the Gospel of Nicodemus in the Apocryphal New Testament (16:1–13) and was incorporated into Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend), which was widely spread in fifteenth and sixteenth-century Northern Europe. The accounts report that Christ demanded with a voice like thunder and wind, "Lift up your gates, O ye princes [of Hell] . . . and the King of Glory shall come in." Accordingly, Christ emerges in the painting through the gate of hell, illuminated by a divine light, appearing with a red mantle on his shoulders and a victory banner, while armed demons try to prevent the gate from opening. The surrounding landscape is defined by fires, which silhouette buildings and hills that are separated by a meandering dark river, recalling Styx, Hades’ river in Greek mythology.

In anticipation of the Savior, the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets populate a massive ruin in the painting’s foreground, evoking the Tower of Babel (see Additional Images, fig. 1). Besides Adam and Eve, the tower is climbed by Abraham and Isaac with the expiatory ram, Noah with a model of the Ark, Moses with the Tablets of the Law, David with his harp, the Repentant Thief from the Crucifixion with his cross, and presumably Lot accompanied by his daughters. The figure at the rear carrying a lantern and pointing the way was identified as Diogenes by Bergmans (1963) (see Additional Images, fig. 2). However, new investigations by Thürlemann (letter in departmental files) suggest that the figure might represent the ninth of the twelve Minor Prophets of the Canon of the Old Testament, Zephaniah, known in Greco-Latin (in the Vulgate and the Septuagint) as Sophonias. Similarly to Diogenes, Zephaniah is depicted in Christian art with the lantern referring to Zephaniah I:12: "I will search Jerusalem with lamps."

Besides the main narrative, Saint Christopher, who, carrying the Christ Child on his shoulders and attracting our attention by wearing a white garment, can be spotted in the tumult of the devil’s legion behind the tower (see Additional Images, fig. 3). As the Golden Legend tells, Saint Christopher served the devil’s army in his search for the greatest and most powerful ruler in the world before finding his lord in Christ. The depiction of Saint Christopher as part of the devil’s legion is unconventional, but not his appearance in a demonic, hellish environment. The representation of the saint in paintings and prints experienced new iconographic portrayals and reached a high point in Northern Europe around 1550. Depicted in combination with demonic motifs, images of the Christian saint could carry an apotropaic meaning due to his overcoming Satan. At the same time his legend also could be read as an allegory for the human pilgrimage to Christ challenged by trials of mischief and temptation (Unverfehrt 1980). The Met’s painting specifically evokes this latter allegorical meaning.

In contrast, the painting confronts its viewer with Judas, prominently holding his moneybag at the base of the right rock (see Additional Images, fig. 4). Planning to slip off with the Old Testament figures, he is stopped by devilish creatures and prevented from seeking redemption, for he committed suicide by hanging, a deed strongly repudiated by the Church in the sixteenth century. The gallows and hanging scene, flanking the group to the left, buttresses this implication (see Additional Images, fig. 5). The figure of Judas in such a pictorial context was emphasized by Karel van Mander in his description of a painted Hell that he had seen in Amsterdam and attributed to Hieronymus Bosch in his Schilder-Boek (1604). Van Mander’s description might refer to an authentic panel by Bosch, which is lost today, or to The Met’s painting, as Büttner suggested (2014).

Moreover, Sisyphus, who climbs to the top of the right rock, first identified and to this day only mentioned by Donath (1926), plays a pivotal role for the image’s subtext (see Additional Images, fig. 6). In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was punished for his self-aggrandizing deceitfulness by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill in the underworld, only to watch it roll back down, repeating his action for eternity. In Christian thought and in contradiction to such saints as Saint Christopher, Sisyphus became the epitome of vain effort and senseless life. On the other hand, his endless aspiration to reach the rock’s summit was received in humanist literature since Petrarch as an encouraging moral metaphor for the human struggle to overcome a sinful lifestyle (see Elliott M. Simon, The Myth of Sisyphus: Renaissance Theories of Human Perfectibility, Madison [N.J.], 2007). An allusion to immoral living is also ascribed to the burning ship and shipwreck in the painting’s background. This recalls the image of the Christian community as a ship, inverted to serve as a satire on folly and vice in Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools (1494), in whose conception the latter is ultimately an image of the followers of the Antichrist (see Larry Silver, Hieronymus Bosch, New York/London, 2008).

Together, the painting’s interwoven narratives offer a deep eschatological subtext for its audience, providing them with an encouragement to devote their lives to Christ and renounce immoral living in anticipation of the Last Judgment.

The Bosch Revival and the Painting’s Versions: This dystopian vision of the underworld is closely related to the visual vocabulary of Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450–1516), who was born and active in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Northern Netherlands (see The Met, 13.26). Countless sixteenth-century prints after and in the spirit of Bosch as well as copies and imitations on panel and canvas testify to the artist’s popularity and the increasing interest in the demonic aspects of his work, which was appreciated by both local and foreign collectors. Apocalyptic Hell landscapes were popular due to a belief held by many in Northern Europe that the end of the world was imminent, reflected in contemporary literature. Consequently, a number of sixteenth-century paintings depicting Christ’s descent into Hell in Bosch’s manner have come down to us. However, despite Van Mander’s description of a "Hell […] in which patriarchs are released, and Judas, who is planning to slip off with them is hauled up and hanged with a noose," no representation of the subject, which might have functioned as a direct model for The Met's painting, can be identified in Bosch’s painted or drawn oeuvre (see Karel van Mander, The Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters . . . , ed. by H. Miedema, vol. 1, Doornsijk, 1994). Moreover, there is no known source in Bosch for the picture type of a long horizontal format, which more likely arises from developments in Netherlandish landscape painting. Nevertheless, many of The Met paintings' motifs are reminiscent of Bosch’s triptych The Last Judgment (Groeningemuseum, Bruges).

There are two known very close versions of The Met’s panel. The first (formerly in the collection Benedetto Valmarana-Mangilli in Venice; today in a private collection, Milan) is a precise copy of the New York painting (see Additional Images, fig. 7). The changes introduced between the underdrawing and painting stages by the artist of The Met’s painting, which were discovered during its technical examination, indicate an original, creative process, rather than the slavish copy of a fixed design (see Technical Notes and Additional Images, figs. 8–9). This provides evidence to suggest that The Met’s painting is the primary version and the Milan painting is a copy. This should be verified by the eventual technical study of the Milan version. The precise repetition of the format, composition, motifs, and characteristics of the painting technique, such as the way highlights are placed, suggest that it was made in the presence of The Met's painting at a very early stage and before the latter had been trimmed at its bottom edge (see Technical Notes). Interestingly, the copyist slightly centered the composition of the New York panel. The varied palette as well as the different technical execution of the Milan copy suggest the hand of another artist. It has been attributed by Frimmel and Bergmans to the South Netherlandish artist Gillis Mostaert I, a pupil of Jan Mandijn (see Theodor von Frimmel, Kleine Galeriestudien, vol. 1, Leipzig 1899; Bergmans 1963).

The relationship between The Met's painting and a second faithful variation of it (current location unknown; on the London art market in 1928, offered by Matthiesen, according to Unverfehrt; see Additional Images, fig. 10) is more complicated due to minor differences in composition and motifs. Unverfehrt (1980) suggested a common model for both paintings, either by Bosch or his workshop. A final conclusion about the relationship must, however, remain open until the painting resurfaces.

All three panels can be associated with related paintings that reflect parts of their compositions and motifs. Whereas a painting with the same subject (Sotheby’s, London, July 8–9, 2015, no. 1, as Leiden School) clearly relates to the London painting (due to the repetition of the details of its tower), a Temptation of Saint Anthony (Christie’s, Amsterdam, September 5–6, 2000, no. 601, as follower of Jan Mandijn), has a closer connection to the New York version and its Milan copy. Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo’s early sixteenth-century Venetian panel The Tribulations of Saint Anthony Abbot (Timken Museum of Art, San Diego) combines elements of Bosch’s altarpiece in Bruges with the rock and the group around Judas of the New York panel. The genesis and sequence of the paintings remain subject to discussion.

The Attribution and Date: While there never has been doubt about the fine quality of this painting, there has been some scholarly debate about its exact attribution and dating. Dendrochronological analysis revealed that the wood panel probably was not used before 1505 (see Technical Notes), leaving room for speculation on the date thereafter of the painting’s execution.

In 1926 the picture appeared on the Prague art market. That year, based on a black and white photograph, Friedländer stated that it "is a characteristic work by Hieronymus Bosch" (unpublished opinion in departmental files), and included it as an authentic panel by Bosch in his fifth volume of Die Altniederländische Malerei in 1927. Donath (1926) and Burroughs (1927) also attributed the painting to Bosch, contrasting with Panofsky (1933; verbal opinion in departmental files), who stated that the painting may be by the Flemish Renaissance painter and Bosch follower Pieter Huys (ca. 1519–1584). Michel (1935) considered it a work later than Bosch, deriving from Bosch’s Last Judgment in Vienna. De Tolnay (1937) listed it with doubtful works and dated it by its "Italianizing nudes" between 1540 and 1550 (which he changed to 1530–50 in 1966). Sterling (1939; verbal opinion in departmental archives) suggested Frans Mostaert, the brother of Gillis Mostaert I, as the author of the painting, before Wehle and Salinger (1947) attributed it to an anonymous follower of Bosch, dating it in the "first quarter of the sixteenth century."

Bergmans (1963) attributed the Milan copy to Gillis Mostaert I, and claimed that the figure of Diogenes with a lantern had not appeared in the North before 1559. Since Mostaert died in 1560, she dated The Met's painting and its Milan copy between 1559 and 1560. Two authors upheld Bergmans’s argument, namely Unverfehrt (1980) and Corwin (1976), of whom the latter attributed the New York painting to a "Bosch revival painter" contemporary to Mostaert, but not necessarily by him. Thürlemann (2015) weakened Bergmans’s argument in showing that the figure, which has been thought to be Diogenes, might represent Zephanias.

Sintobin (1998) pointed out that the house or passageway in the shape of a head (see Additional Images, fig. 11) is a motif that must have derived from Pieter Bruegel the Elder's drawing The Temptation of Saint Anthony (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). This drawing dates to 1556, supporting the idea of the New York painting’s execution in the late 1550s or even later, she supposed. This, however, is not convincing for various paintings by Bosch followers, which represent such a head, indicate that the iconography of the head has not been newly introduced by Bruegel but more likely was inspired by a lost painting or drawing by Bosch or his workshop, as Unverfehrt (1980) already had proposed. Against this backdrop, Thürlemann (2015) suggested that the panel is a late work by Matthys Cock (active before 1548), dating around 1540. Future research on the landscape tradition and Bosch’s reception in both the Southern and the Northern Netherlands during the first half of the sixteenth century may help to confirm or deny this new attribution.

[Linda M. Müller 2016]
Support: The support is composed of two oak planks, with the grain oriented horizontally. The join, located near the center of the panel, was originally held in place with three dowels, which are evident in the x-radiograph (see Additional Images, figs. 12–13). Dendrochronological analysis (completed by Dr. Peter Klein, Universität Hamburg, 1997) indicated an earliest possible creation date of 1491, with a more plausible date of 1505 upwards. The wood originated in the Baltic/Polish region. The support measures 3/8 inch (0.8cm) thick and has not been thinned; original tool marks are present on the verso. Rough saw marks and a slightly irregular angle indicate that the bottom edge of the panel has been trimmed. The other three edges appear intact.

Comparison of The Met's panel to a version in a private collection in Milan (see Additional Images, fig. 7) also suggests that the bottom edge was slightly trimmed. The Milan version measures 55.5 x 120.5 cm, which is very close to the dimensions of The Met's panel, but slightly squarer. Assuming a direct proportional relationship between the two, the bottom of The Met's panel may have been trimmed about 1.6 cm.

Traces of a brown shape at the bottom right of The Met's panel, largely obscured by early, discolored overpaint that runs along much of the bottom edge, provides further evidence that the bottom edge was trimmed. This brown shape is similar in location and appearance to the smoky flames rising up from the fire depicted in the lower right of the Milan composition, suggesting that a corresponding fire was originally present in the New York panel, but when the panel was trimmed the fiery center was cropped out leaving only an amorphous brownish form that was then painted out.

Preparation: The panel was prepared with an off-white ground. There are no traces of a barbe on any edge, but there are a few instances where the ground beads out over the left and right edges of the panel, confirming that the original edges are preserved there and indicating that the panel was prepared independent of a frame.

Examination with infrared reflectography revealed a cursory underdrawing, executed using a dry medium. A few sketchy lines were observed in the background, for example, loose strokes setting out the horizon and curves for the clouds of smoke. In addition, two important compositional elements were worked up to a greater degree: the large head-shaped house near the center and the owl to its right (see Additional Images, figs. 8–9). The head was sketched out and then shaded with cross-hatched lines that follow the curves of the face and with parallel hatches in the nose. The owl was underdrawn with rough lines, which were then altered in the painting process to narrow the body and head.

It is very possible that more extensive underdrawing is present but obscured in infrared examination by carbon-containing paint layers. Major passages of the composition were blocked in using broad strokes of thin paint in varying shades of grey and brown, which could be concealing underdrawing.

Paint layers: The handling of the paint throughout the composition points to a skilled and efficient hand. Main passages were thinly blocked in with broad paint strokes, then finer details were added with a smaller brush using slightly heavier-bodied paint. For example, the quiet depths of the water were created in a simple and direct manner: gradations of blue and light blue paint was thinly layered on top of a brown underpaint with a scattering of tiny strokes of slightly thicker white paint to suggest waves. The small figures populating the composition were painted atop the landscape with an equally deft approach. The small details of these figures were painted using slightly impasted paint, with a few instances of wet-in-wet strokes. On close examination, some figures were then outlined with black paint, further demarcating them from the landscape.

A few changes were introduced between the underdrawing and painting stages. As noted above, the owl was originally drawn wider. A few underdrawn lines in the landscape were not followed in the painting, such as a wavy line in the upper right or architectural lines in the upper left. In addition, the orange paint that creates the apocalyptic glow across much of the sky extends slightly under the blue paint in the upper left corner, suggesting that even more of the sky was originally given over to a fiery sky.

The uppermost paint layers were abraded during an insensitive past cleaning, particularly evident in the browns, for example, in the smoky sky above the gaping mouth and in the ships’ riggings. A combination of this abrasion and the increased translucency of the aged oil paint gives the impression that the paint was applied even more thinly than it was, particularly in the brown passages of the background.

[Sophie Scully 2015]
Philipp, Graf von Saint Genois, Vienna (before 1895); [Kominik, Prague, after 1895]; Frantisek Kominik, Prague (until 1926); [Hugo Feigl, Prague, 1926; sold to MMA]
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.

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

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

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).

Édouard Michel. Letter. September 12, 1935, considers it a little later than Hieronymus Bosch, deriving from the "Last Judgment" in Vienna.

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

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

Ludwig Baldass. Katalog der Gemäldegalerie. 2nd ed. Vienna, 1938, p. 21, under no. 652, suggests that this work and the Vienna "Descent into Hell" are by the same hand.

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.

Simone 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. Early Netherlandish Painting. Vol. 5, Geertgen tot Sint Jans and Jerome Bosch. 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. Ed. Maryan W. Ainsworth and Keith Christiansen. 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).

Erik Larsen. Hieronymus Bosch. New York, 1998, p. 136, no. 41 [Italian ed., "Hieronymus Bosch: catalogo completo," Florence], agrees with Tolnay (1966) that the nudes are distinctly Italianizing, and states that it can therefore hardly date before 1530–50, considerably later than Bosch's death.

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

Marc Rudolf de Vrij. Jheronimus Bosch: An Exercise in Common Sense. Hilversum, The Netherlands, 2012, p. 568, no. E.24, ill. (color), incorrectly refers to new technical data that would confirm its dating to later than the 1550s.

Michel Weemans. Herri met de Bles: les ruses du paysage au temps de Bruegel et d'Érasme. Paris, 2013, p. 286, fig. 194 (color).

Nils Büttner in Fälschung—Plagiat—Kopie: Künstlerische Praktiken in der Vormoderne. Ed. Birgit Ulrike Münch et al. Petersberg, 2014, p. 31, ill., suggests that a Hell painting, described by Karel van Mander in his "Schilder-Boek" of 1604 and mentioned as a work by Hieronymus Bosch, is The Met's painting; points out that Van Mander's description of Judas, who is planning to slip off with the Old Testament figures but is hauled up with a noose and hanged, might refer to the scenery at the foot of the right rock in this work.

Felix Thürlemann. Letter to Linda Marie Müller. December 10, 2015, thinks it is a late work by Matthys Cock (active before 1548), and dates it about 1540; identifies the figure with the lantern as Zephaniah, opposing Bergmans's (1963) late dating of the picture based on the identification of the figure as Diogenes; suggests the "Temptation of Saint Anthony" in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, is not the source for the head in this picture but a lost work of Bosch.

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