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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) Speakers: Dr. Nancy Ross and Dr. Paul Binski. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) Nancy: Okay, 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. If you look at it, it's such a dramatic moment in the history of art and the history of Christ's passion 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, and it's in a moment of extraordinary kind of drama. And here, 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, and this is very popular in England. Particularly, 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, jaws yanked as far apart as possible, and out of this, this extraordinary mouth, a pouring, these rather innocent-looking people who are the, so to speak, the people who are being redeemed from the old testament, Nancy: That's right. Paul: And Adam and Eve are right at the head and to the left-hand side of the image, gripping Adam by his wrist, I suppose, isn't it, really? Is a gigantic figure of Jesus with a bright blue mantel on lined in red, and a great staff, so he's like a sort of pilgrim on a journey, and he's journeyed all the way down into Hell. They probably didn't read Dante, Nancy: Probably not. Paul: But he's like a sort of pilgrim with his scrip, and he's gripping at him and Eve is just behind Adam, and they're stark naked, and Adam is bearded, and they're all coming out of this enormous mouth and being pulled forward. And there's a funny mixture of sort of drama and stassis about it. You know, that the figures aren't sort of jerking around and being very dynamic. It's quite still in a way. Nancy: I think it is one of these tremendously dramatic moments that's really fabulous because it is salvation. Paul: Yes. 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 the people out of the jaws of Hell. Paul: Yes, that's right. Nancy: So he's really in the act of saving them. Paul: And the interesting thing about it is that when he does this, he's standing sort of built upright, really, with a scroll coming out of his mouth. There must have been something written there that he's speaking, but 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. So the idea is that the action of pulling Adam and Eve out is addressed sort of to us. "This is what I do for you," is what he's saying. It's like a gift. But you're right, you don't normally see that. And 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 and he seems, is that a horn he's blowing on? Nancy: I think it is a horn, and I can't help but always make the apocalyptic connections, having been so steeped in apocalypse iconography. Paul: Is he issuing a warning that Hell's mouth is being breached. It's like a defense. Nancy: It could be. And he seems to be holding up, what is that, a key? Nancy: I think that is a key, yeah. Often, you see devils with staves, Paul: Yeah. Nancy: But this looks to be more than that, as though there is some kind of unlocking process that has happened here. Paul: And that's very English because many centuries before this, in some of the great 12th-century representations of finality of Hell, you see a large angel. There's a wonderful psalter from Winchester. Nancy: Mm-hmm. Yes. Hellmouth sort of being locked up. Nancy: That's right. possessing this enormous key, and it has this kind of finality to it and here it's all wrenched open, and everything is reversed. Everything comes out, and you wonder who the other figures are that are coming out because they're not all stark naked. Adam and Eve are absolutely ... Nancy: No, we have a clothed figure here, and almost textured. Almost as though that's a hair shirt. Paul: It looks a little bit like a slightly shaggy sort of vest, open at his breast. Nancy: Yes. They've got these terrific kind of contemporary hairdos, so he'd got a wonderful beard, which is kind of forked into two, and Christ is quite fashionable looking, and he's got his beard carefully done. He's got his crown of thorns on. Nancy: I love this body position. I mean, he's just turned right around. We have this wonderfully elongated figure, and quite emaciated, really. I mean, none of these people seem to have eaten much in their lives. Paul: Yes. Nancy: And he's this wonderful, very elegant elongated figure, you know. Twisting at the hips and reaching right back around. Paul: And if you look closely, it's beautifully painted, actually. Nancy: It is. Paul: Because the flesh isn't painted. It's this sort of slightly gray color that alabaster goes, but the rest of it, there's this sort of green sword with those little red and white flowers and gold at the top. Quite a lot of gold, actually. I wonder if that's original. Nancy: And I think that strange quality of the alabaster really comes out as it is just the skin. That strange, creepy, slightly translucent ... Paul: It's the translucency. You can see through it. It's like ice. You think you can see just under the surface. Nancy: Yeah. Paul: Which makes it rather uncanny and fleshy. Nancy: Another thing I want to point out here is that someone has gauged out the eyes of the Hellmouth, or it has scored the eyes of the Hellmouth, and I wonder, also, if this score across the demon's waist is also an intentional ... Paul: Oh, yes. Good, you've got very sharp eyes. Nancy: Trying to mar the figure. Paul: Yeah. Paul: Disempower it. Nancy: That's right. but it's all about disempowering Hell, isn't it? Nancy: Yes. triumphing over death. It's a sort of heroic moment, really, of triumph in this way, which is so essential to the Christian message, isn't it? Nancy: Yes, absolutely. (piano music)