The Harrowing of Hell

The Harrowing of Hell or Christ’s Dissent into Limbo, Master of the Osservanza, c. 1440-1444, Siena, Italy. The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums.

By Hillary Asbury

The Harrowing of Hell is just one panel of a larger altarpiece which depicts several vignettes from the Passion of our Lord. In the painting, we see a cut out scene of a dark cave, and several of the faithful departed huddled within. Two men, perhaps Noah and Abraham, kneel before Jesus.  Behind them stand John the Baptist who is, as always, pointing to Christ and turning to his companion (likely King David) to tell of the coming of the Savior. In the back corner we see Adam and Eve, patiently awaiting the fulfillment of that long-ago promise.

What I love about this painting is an almost cartoonish detail that I completely overlooked when I first viewed it. If you didn’t already see it, take another look at what Christ is standing on. In a day or two He is about to appear to His disciples in a locked room. Jesus clearly is not encumbered by an obligation to use doors at this point, but here he is depicted not only entering through the doorway but breaking down the door, squashing Satan in process! I can almost imagine the devil standing there thinking he had won, taunting the poor people in that cave and gloating about the death of the Messiah. Then BAM! Jesus breaks in and just flattens him.

What’s even funnier is the drama of a door being broken down seems to be in direct contrast with the serenity of the figures in the scene. The Savior has come to minister to these people, and clearly, they have been waiting. This painting is beautiful, peaceful, rich. I look at it and wonder what made the artist include such an odd detail.

Humorous as it may seem to our modern eyes, though (and who knows, maybe it was funny back then too?), what it highlights is Christ’s victory over sin and death, it shows that Satan had been defeated once and for all. Not only is Christ standing, unharmed in the dominion of evil, but he has trampled the Accuser in his own house. So, in victory, the Messiah stands with the devil firmly under His feet, and preaches the Gospel in the depths of hell.