In this comparatively rare iconographic type the dead body of Jesus is carried to the Father by angels, always accompanied by some of the instruments of the Passion – the cross, the crown of thorns, the nails, and so on. There is a 13th-century example without the instruments in the south aisle of St. Mark's, Venice, but examples with the instruments seem to go back only as far as the 17th. As the pictures on the right demonstrate, the artist need not actually portray the Father, or even the Son. In the second one the angels are just getting off the ground, and in the third they are carrying only the instruments to Heaven, where it is the Holy Spirit who receives them.
These images serve two purposes important in the controversies of their time. First, they function theologically, emphasizing that Christ gave himself as a sacrifice to the Father for the remission of the sins of mankind. This is in tune with the Council of Trent's admonition that it is by images in a church that people are "instructed and confirmed in the articles of the faith" and "reminded of the benefits and gifts that Christ has bestowed on them."1 Secondly, like much counter-Reformation art, they have an affective function, leading the viewer to contemplate the pain and sorrow of Jesus' death and thus to appreciate the sublimity of that sacrifice.
The rarity of this type of image is probably due to some inconsistency with the belief that after his death on the Cross Christ went to Hell to reclaim the souls of those who had been faithful to God. Ephesians 4:9, for example, says he "descended…into the lower parts of the earth." The Apostles' Creed says Jesus "descended into Hell" after he was buried, and this "harrowing of Hell" is the subject of many medieval plays and images. That may be why the first picture on the right adds a scene at the bottom in which souls in Hell look up toward Christ, as if they were his next stop.
Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2018-09-02.