The Catechetical Review - Communicating Christ for a New Evangelization

Inspired Through Art: The Crucifixion and The Harrowing of Hell

Authored by Linus Meldrum in Issue #4.1 of Catechetical Review

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Paintings entitled The Crucifixion and The Harrowing of Hell

To view "The Crucifixion" image, click here; then click on the download button, then on the double underscore symbol to download a high resolution version for your smart board.

To view the "Chist in Limbo" (aka The Harrowing of Hell) image, click here and do the same.

An Anonymous Renaissance Master, 1550-1575

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (Jn 3:13).

“And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself” (Jn 12:32).

The anonymous artist who painted these two images was likely a member of the workshop of Hans Mielich, a German Renaissance artist.  Mielich painted at the court of Albert V, the Duke of Bavaria. In 1536, he moved to Regensberg and met Albrecht Altdorfer. Altdorfer was one of the first Renaissance artists who developed landscape painting as a form in itself. Altdorfer’s images had a sweep and grandeur that incorporated nature, crowds, and expressive painterliness. Mielich, and likely his workshop, also found Altdorfer’s expansive Northern Renaissance vision a powerful and useful way to depict the drama of the Life of Christ. Mielich and members of his workshop completed an important altarpiece in the Church of Our Beautiful Lady in Ingolstadt. The “anonymous artist” represented here is considered to be one of these assistants.

The two works are expressive of the Passion and Death of Christ but also include the suffering of others, as well as a blessed outcome of the sacrifice on Calvary: the Harrowing of Hell. The choices made by the artist indicate his contemplation of the meaning of these Paschal Mystery events.

Christ’s death is both the Paschal sacrifice that accomplishes the definitive redemption of men, through “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”, and the sacrifice of the New Covenant, which restores man to communion with God by reconciling him to God through the “blood of the covenant, which was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (CCC 613)

The artist has selected points of view and compositional formats that accentuate the collective meaning of these two events. The artist is also a person of his time—a Renaissance thinker and image-maker using techniques that show his familiarity with perspective and space represented with foreground, middle ground, and background. He also incorporates an intense color and light, using the oil medium to make the painted image rich with not only chiaroscuro—light and shadow—but also the glisten of luminosity as in the armor of the centurion traditionally known as Longinus, the man who opened Christ’s side with a lance and declared, “Surely this man was the Son of God” (Mt 27:54).

The Crucifixion

In the Crucifixion, we encounter Christ’s mother Mary and the beloved disciple John near the foot of the cross; Mary’s eyes shrouded by her mantle.  Mary Magdalen clings to the foot of the cross.  While the artist holds back on a literal and historically accurate depiction of enormous rivers of blood from the wounds of Jesus, he does depict Mary’s dress as an overflowing scarlet basin receiving the mercy pouring down from the Cross. This is an example of a visual metaphor: the visible narrative provides our eyes and imagination with a prompt to understand the invisible reality of this moment.

There is an enormous compression of the scene. The squeezing inward of the sides of the image and packing together of so many elements creates anxiety that corresponds to this grief-filled moment. This compression also moves the eye upward, as the glances and gestures guide our view toward the face of Jesus.  The space of the image is transformed by the differences between the cross of the Good Thief that clings to the edge of the image like a framing device and the more dynamic diagonal of the cross of Jesus.  This composition creates a distinctive relationship between the characters: the thief bound to the static world of the frame and Christ “breaking” the flat regularity of the picture plane; Jesus is “in this world”, but not “of this world.” At the same time, an ellipse is created among the outstretched arms of Jesus extending from hands to hands around the victims of this crucifixion scene, suggesting an immense reverberation of the halo above his head.

This unique reality of the suffering and death of Jesus—the taking of all of sin upon him as the Lamb of God—is a shocking moment in Salvation History. The Crucifixion wakes us up from ourselves. It reminds us that no matter how much our suffering plagues our humanity Christ died the ultimate death for us so that we might be free of sin and be welcomed in heaven. By seeing this image, we are asked to join our suffering to those wounds of Jesus and join those at the foot of the cross to welcome our Savior’s gift.

When God instructed Moses to raise the Brazen Serpent on a staff in the desert, it was to offer healing to the suffering multitude of Israelites who, having complained against God, were bitten by poisonous serpents. By seeing the cause of their suffering “lifted up” before them, they were healed. When Jesus reminded his disciples of his coming death on the cross, he was typologically linking himself to the Old Testament narrative.  As St. Paul puts it, Jesus “became” sin. “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor 5:21). Sin is our greatest failure; it offends God who is worthy of all our love, causes us to suffer, and prevents us from receiving salvation.  While Jesus did not commit sin, he bore all sin in his flesh and offered himself on the cross as an ultimate and conclusive sacrifice. Like the Israelites in the desert, when we accept this undeserved gift, we are healed; it overturns the original fall of humankind caused by our first parents, Adam and Eve, and allows ongoing sacramental forgiveness in the Sacrament of Confession; it rejoins us to God.

Christ’s Descent to Hell

In the image The Harrowing of Hell, we encounter a remarkable part of the salvation narrative. We see Christ, as we profess in the Creed, descending into hell. Why? To rescue those just souls who were prevented from entering heaven until Jesus opened the gates by his sacrifice on Calvary.

Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him. (CCC 633)

This moment confirms the reality that Jesus did truly die. But as the Catechism explains,

…Jesus, like all men, experienced death and his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there. (CCC 632)

This scene conveys a different emotion than that of the Crucifixion. This is one of hope confirmed and of ensuing joy as Jesus calls out to a vast landscape of humans trapped in this dark land of sorrow. The figures are packed tightly, again compressed in the vertical format, adding to the urgency of this dramatic moment when all eyes begin to move toward Jesus, who is “drawing everyone to himself.” The buildings in the background recall pagan antiquity and the Classical Age, filled with the basis for knowledge of the truth, but incomplete without the Gospel. Jesus brings that final truth to completion. As the Catechism reminds us of St. Peter’s words,

“The Gospel was preached even to the dead.” [1 Pet 4:6] The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption. (CCC 634)

In that vast array of the just souls, one can identify Adam, the first human, as the largest figure in the foreground, followed by Eve behind him. Somewhere in there we would find Abel, Abraham, Moses, and the holy ones of the Old Testament. One also sees many children, children who might include the Holy Innocents and others. As one contemplates the crowd, consider the joyous meeting of Jesus and St. Joseph, his foster father and childhood protector—a happy day for these souls.

Linus Meldrum is Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at Franciscan University where he teaches the core curriculum course, Visual Arts and the Catholic Imagination, as well as Studio Art.

This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting

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