Sabbatical Wanderings and The Harrowing of Hell

Harrowing of Hell II
The Harrowing of Hell, Netherlandish, c. 1600

Some years ago a priest friend got me interested, quite unintentionally I think, in religious art.  Since that time I have become a true religious art junkie and whenever time allows I head for a museum and specifically the gallery containing works from the 13th through the 16th century. Like most Anglicans old things have an irresistible appeal to me and art is no exception.

I recently read an article by Abram Kielsmeier-Jones, posted to Facebook by another priest friend which advises Pastors that they should remember to actually keep a Sabbath.  In that context he is not talking about Sunday worship, though that is also very important, but rather he is talking about a day of rest and renewal as the Sabbath was intended to be.  He suggests such a day every week and if time does not permit that at least one hour a day.  Stop, rest, and contemplate doing those things which help you accomplish those things.  The article was written for harried Pastors who experience Sundays as another busy action packed workday, a far cry from rest, and restoration. But, it should equally apply to harried laymen who volunteer to be eucharistic ministers, and daily office officiants, teach Sunday school attend to child care, etc. etc.

So, my resolution is to make sure I keep a true Sabbath for at least one day a week.  On my last Sabbath I viewed and photographed this painting.  In the flesh it is much more impressive reaching floor to ceiling on the museum wall with elaborate detail.  As you can see above it is  titled “The Harrowing of Hell ”  and for me the best way to relate the theology expressed here is to repeat a portion of the Apostles Creed from the we recite every day in the Daily Office of the Book of Common Prayer:

“And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord;

who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,

born of the Virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified dead and buried ,

He descended into Hell,

I will not elaborate further and leave more detailed explanations to those better trained to provide them.  But I will say it is my understanding that on Good Friday Jesus became the master of Hell and once and for all vanquished evil.

On my last Sabbath, therefore,  I stood before this wonderful painting trying to stop my cell phone camera from flashing as the use of flash was strictly forbidden in the museum. A young woman and her two children came up beside me.  I was just about to launch  into my explanation of the painting and the creed when I heard the young woman tell her children “The Christians believe he was a prophet who died and then he came back to life and was remade..  And there is obviously a lot more to this but I don’t now about that.”  I froze in my tracks realizing I had encountered some folks who were either Jewish or something else, or nothing, and how thoughtless I was to simply assume everyone wanted to know about the harrowing of hell.  Next time I may tell them anyway.

To provide greater details about the painting I am reprinting the explanation on the card beside the painting:

The Harrowing of Hell,
c. 1600. Oil on panel.
78.25 x 52.25 inches.

This panel painting, with its arched format, would have been used as an altarpiece at the turn of the seventeenth century. The artist’s name is not known, nor is it clear which European country it comes from.

It is certain, however, that it was produced for a Catholic church at the time of the Protestant Reformation, when the Church sought to restore its religious authority. The subject matter here portrays the Church’s teachings on Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, as well as its Holy Sacrament at Catholic Mass, to save Christians from damnation in hell.

The Risen Christ is placed in the lower center; behind him is the cross with the inscription INRI (an abbreviation of the Latin for Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews) and symbols of the Passion: the scourge, the whip, the crown of thorns, the spear, and the sponge soaked with vinegar on a long reed, all instruments of torture during Christ’s crucifixion.

The divine light of God the Father, with the Hebrew inscription Yahweh, shines overhead. In his left hand, Christ holds a white banner, and in his right, a hammer—both symbolizing his triumphant resurrection and victory in opening the gates of hell. He tramples beneath his feet a skeleton and a devil-beast, representations of death and sin.

Christ looks to the left, where Adam, Eve, and other Christians are being freed from purgatory, where they had been forced to stay until Christ’s resurrection cleansed their souls of original sin. In the opposite, lower right corner, are the figures of the damned—sinners and non-believers—being forced into the jaws of a large beast, representing the fiery mouth of hell.

Depicted in the upper background of the painting are other motifs associated with Counter Reformation ideas: a priest celebrating a Eucharistic mass, the Ship of Fools, and the establishment of the new covenant of the Christian era, on the left, replacing the older Judaic law, on the right.


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