The Harrowing of Hell

The Harrowing of Hell, c. 1440-70, carved painted and gilt alabaster, 58.3 x 31.5 cm (Victoria and Albert Museum)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Nancy Ross: [0:04] We’re here at the Kalamazoo Institute of Art, and we’re looking at an English alabaster that is The Harrowing of Hell, from 1440 to 1470.

Dr. Paul Binski: [0:12] If you look at it, it’s such a dramatic moment in the history of art and the history of Christ’s Passion, the resurrection because it’s the story of Christ’s descent into hell and how he tugs Adam and Eve out of hell before he, himself, goes up to heaven. It’s a moment of extraordinary kind of drama.

[0:29] Just to give an idea of what you have, it’s quite a highly colored block of alabaster with an enormous hellmouth on the right-hand side. This is very popular in England particularly.

[0:39] It’s the idea that hell is a sort of gigantic monster with an enormous open mouth with teeth, and it’s got what looks like a sort of snout and beady eyes, and it’s stretched right open like some immense dinosaur. His jaws are yanked as far apart as possible out of this extraordinary mouth. Abhorring these rather innocent looking people who are the people being redeemed from the Old Testament.

Dr. Ross: [1:03] That’s right.

Dr. Binski: [1:04] Adam and Eve are right up ahead. To the left-hand side of the image, gripping Adam by the wrist, I suppose, is a gigantic figure of Jesus, with a bright blue mantle on, lined in red and a great staff. He’s like some pilgrim on a journey. He’s journeyed all the way down into hell. They probably didn’t read Dante.

Dr. Ross: [1:23] Probably not.

Dr. Binski: [1:24] He’s like a pilgrim with his script. He’s gripping Adam, and Eve is just behind Adam. They’re stark naked and Adam is bearded. They’re all coming out of this enormous mouth and being pulled forward. There’s a funny mixture of drama and stasis about it. The figures actually are joking around and being very dynamic. It’s quite still in a way.

Dr. Ross: [1:47] I think it is one of these tremendously dramatic moments that’s really fabulous because it is salvation.

Dr. Binski: [1:51] Yeah.

Dr. Ross: [1:52] It’s watching salvation in action where we don’t really see salvation in action in quite the same way. We don’t really see Christ in other scenes ripping people out of the jaws of hell.

Dr. Binski: [2:02] Yes, that’s right.

Dr. Ross: [2:02] He’s actually in the act of saving them.

Dr. Binski: [2:06] The interesting thing about it is that when he does this, he’s standing, bold upright with a scroll coming out of his mouth. There must have been something written there that he’s speaking. He’s not looking at Adam and Eve at all. He’s looking actually out at us as we stand here looking back at him, he’s looking out at us. The idea is that the action of pulling Adam and Eve out is addressed to us.

Dr. Ross: [2:25] Yes.

Dr. Binski: [2:26] “This is what I do for you,” is what he’s saying. It’s like a gift. You’re dead right. You don’t normally see that. Then you start to notice all these other little details. Like at the top, sitting on the snout of the hellmouth, is a tiny little demon with cloven hoof hands. Is that a horn he’s blowing on?

Dr. Ross: [2:41] I think it is a horn. I can’t help but always make the apocalyptic connections, having been so steeped in apocalypse iconography.

Dr. Binski: [2:47] Is he issuing a warning that hell’s mouth has been breached? It’s like a defense…

Dr. Ross: [2:51] It could be.

Dr. Binski: [2:52] …that he’s under threat, and he seems to be holding up… What is that, a key?

Dr. Ross: [2:54] I think that is a key. Often, you see devils with staves or a staff, but this looks to be more than that, as though there is some unlocking process that has happened here.

Dr. Binski: [3:05] That’s very English, because many centuries before this in some of the great 12th-century representations of the finality of hell, you see a large angel. There’s a wonderful psalter from Winchester with a spectacular hellmouth being locked up with an angel possessing this enormous key, and it’s this finality to it.

[3:22] Here it’s all wrenched open, and everything is reversed, everything comes out. You wonder who the other figures are that are coming out because they’re not all stark naked, Adam and Eve are absolutely…

Dr. Ross: [3:31] No, we have a clothed figure here, and almost textured, almost as though that’s a hair shirt.

Dr. Binski: [3:35] It’s a little bit sort of like a slightly shaggy sort of vest, open at his breast, it’s a male figure. They’ve got these terrific contemporary hairdos. He’s got a wonderful beard, which is forked into two. Christ is quite fashionable looking, he’s got his beard carefully done, he’s got his crown of thorns on.

Dr. Ross: [3:50] I love this body position. He’s just turned right around, we have this wonderfully elongated figure, and quite emaciated really. None of these people seem to have eaten much in their lives. He’s this wonderful, very elegant, elongated figure, twisting at the hips and reaching right back around.

Dr. Binski: [4:06] If you look closely, it’s beautifully painted actually, because the flesh isn’t painted, it’s this sort of slightly gray color that alabaster goes, but the rest of it, there’s a green sward with those little red and white flowers, and gold at the top, quite a lot of gold actually. I wonder if that’s original.

Dr. Ross: [4:20] I think that strange quality alabaster really comes out, as it is just the skin, that strange, crepe-y, slightly translucent.

Dr. Binski: [4:26] It’s the translucency, you can see through it. It’s like ice, you think you can see just under the surface, which makes it rather uncanny and fleshy.

Dr. Ross: [4:34] Another thing I want to point out here is that someone has gouged out the eyes of the hellmouth, or it has scored the eyes of the hellmouth. I wonder also if the score across the demon’s waist is also an intentional…

Dr. Binski: [4:46] Oh yes. Good, you’ve got very sharp eyes.

Dr. Ross: [4:49] …trying to mar the figure…

Dr. Binski: [4:52] Yeah, disempower it.

Dr. Ross: [4:53] …put her in its place, that’s right.

Dr. Binski: [4:54] It’s disempowerment, but it’s all about disempowering hell, isn’t it, and overcoming, triumphing over death. It’s a sort of heroic moment of triumph in this way, which is so central to the Christian message, isn’t it?

Dr. Ross: [5:05] Yes, absolutely.

[5:06] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Nancy Ross and Dr. Paul Binski, "The Harrowing of Hell," in Smarthistory, December 10, 2015, accessed June 20, 2024,