The Harrowing of Hell

Altarpiece of Caparroso, Cathedral of St. Mary, Pamplona, Spain

This work borrows some features from Orthodox iconography. In the West Christ leads Adam and the others out of a cave whose entrance is a monster's gaping mouth; in the East, he breaks open Hell's gates and pulls his people up from the netherworld. In this altarpiece, we have a monster but it is a serpent lying vanquished at Christ's feet. Hell is a cave as in western images, but Adam comes forward by stepping on the broken gate of eastern ones.

To be sure, the work is essentially western. Christ bears the five wounds left by his crucifixion and holds a pennoned standard, features one does not find in the East. The howling demons reflect western pictorial and literary traditions. And the figures, though perhaps unsatisfactory by the standards of the 16th century in the West, are nonetheless naturalistic by comparison with Anastasis icons.

There appear to be two women in the group besides Eve, one behind her right shoulder and the other at her left. The Gospel of Nicodemus mentions no women, but it does refer to the group as "patriarchs and prophets and martyrs and forefathers," so the woman behind Eve could represent the women on the list of ancestors in Matthew 1. The other woman, the only one of the group who seems to be frowning, could possibly represent the human denizens of Hades who are not to be redeemed, comparable to the dishonest alewife in the Chester play of the Harrowing (Deimling, II, 329, lines 261-308).

In most Harrowing of Hell images Christ will carry a cross, the sign of his power against sin and death. In this one the artist draws on the Resurrection iconography that pictures him emerging from a sarcophagus wearing a loincloth and cape, and carrying a standard with crosses on the pennon and the finial (example).

Read more about the Harrowing of Hell and the Resurrection.

Photographed at the cathedral by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.