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Wednesday 2 November 2011

Descent into Limbo

Here is an unusual painting I saw in the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery a couple of days ago. If you look carefully (click on the image and then click "Show original" to see a larger version) there are a number of odd things about the picture, but perhaps the most obvious is that it depicts Christ in a rather unflattering rear view. They say you should never turn your back on the audience, but that is exactly what Jesus is doing here! His identity is indicated by a halo and by the "Banner of the Resurrection" -- symbolism that would have been instantly recognizable in 1475 when the picture was painted.

The painting is entitled The Descent of Christ into Limbo, and is the work of the Venetian artist Giovanni Bellini. It is loosely based on an engraving by Bellini's brother-in-law, Andrea Mantegna. The scene depicted was very popular in medieval Christianity, even though it is not mentioned at all in the Bible. The idea is that, during the three days between Christ's death and the Resurrection, he descended into Hell to rescue all the Old Testament Patriarchs and Prophets who had been incarcerated there. The first to be released were Adam and Eve, together with their "good" son Abel: these are the three naked figures on the right of the picture (Abel's brother Cain, as the world's first murderer, was left in Hell).

The story of Christ's decent into Hell was first told in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, written several centuries after the canonical gospels. In the original version, the idea was that the Patriarchs and Prophets were suffering in Hell along with regular sinners, but as time went on theologians decided they weren't happy with this. They invented the concept of "Limbo" (a Latin word meaning "edge") which was a relatively nice part of Hell reserved for virtuous but unbaptized individuals.

By the time of the renaissance, when educated Christians were developing a new respect for the pre-Christian culture of ancient Greece and Rome, the idea of Limbo became indispensable. When Dante wrote his Divine Comedy in the early 14th century, it was in Limbo that he met his tour guide, the Roman poet Virgil. The latter still had a clear recollection of Christ's visit: "I beheld the arrival of a Mighty One, crowned with the token of victory. He delivered from this place the shade of our first parent and of Abel his son, and that of Noah, and of Moses the lawgiver and servant of God; Abraham the patriarch and David the king, Israel with his father and his sons and Rachel for whom he served so long, and many more; and he made them blessed."

The story of the descent into Limbo is what might be called "folk Christianity" -- a legend concocted for the masses which symbolizes a purely spiritual concept. As everyone knows (thanks to Robert Langdon) symbolism was of paramount importance in medieval Christianity. Some of the symbolism in Bellini's painting is obvious: for example the half-human, half-reptilian demons symbolize the torments of Hell, while the cross-holding figure on the left (Saint Dysmas, who according to the Gospel of Nicodemus was crucified at the same time as Jesus) symbolizes the followers of Christ. Ivy, which can be seen growing on the rock behind Dysmas, was a well-established symbol for everlasting life.

The strangest thing in the picture is close to the bottom and easy to miss. The figure of Christ is trampling on the broken gates of Hell, which of course makes perfect sense. But if you look closely, underneath the broken gates is something that looks like a large book. I've no idea what this is supposed to mean -- and it's one of the few features of Bellini's painting which is absent from the Mantegna engraving. A big book, in the Middle Ages, would inevitably have meant the Bible -- which doesn't make sense in this context. Possibly it's meant to be just the Old Testament, and to symbolize the fact that, by freeing the Patriarchs from Hell, Jesus is effectively bringing an end to the legacy of the Old Testament. But that still sounds decidedly heretical to me!


Peni R. Griffin said...

Adam, Eve, and Abel don't seem all that happy to be out. Whichever the one on the right is obviously has a problem with the sound of trumpets. "AGH! Not right in my ear like that, you morons!"

Andrew May said...

Here is the link to the Mantegna version that I meant to include but forgot... if anything they look even less happy in that one (Eve in particular looks much the worse for her time in Hell).