Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Harrowing of Hell

This week I am considering the period between the Crucifixion and Resurrection when Christ, the second Adam, born of the Virgin Mary, the second Eve, descended into hell and brought salvation to the souls held captive there since the beginning of the world, including the first Adam and the first Eve, our parents. The term “the Harrowing of Hell” is a poetic description used in English in the Romanesque and Gothic periods.

This image, a dramatic and evocative composition, is a miniature from the Winchester Psalter,  most likely commissioned by Henry of Blois, brother of Stephen, King of England, and Bishop of Winchester, England, from 1129 until his death in 1171. Using the Romanesque style, which is in accordance with the iconographic style, the artist relies on the flow and varying breadth of line skillfully to describe form using tonal change and color with restraint, so that we are aware of the vellum substrate. This helps to retain a sense of flatness and lack of depth in the image, which evokes the heavenly domain that is outside time and space. Notice how the satanic serpent is shown in profile, not in full-face, in accordance with the convention (explained in a recent post) that the devil is faceless or partially faced to indicate deceit.

I am always struck by the fact that Adam and Eve got a second chance! If even the people responsible for all the suffering and sin in the world could be forgiven, then I have a hope! Through God’s mercy, we can join them in paradise, and each of us will become like Christ, a flower in the new Garden of Eden, blooming through Him in the Spirit.

By the way, I use the term ‘miniature’ here as a generic word for all medieval illumination; it did not originally refer to size, but rather to a particular commonly used color. One of the main pigments used to build up the foundational establishment of line and tone was ‘red lead’, a lead oxide called in Latin, minium, and a “miniature” was originally an image made with it. But because illuminations are generally smaller than the artworks churches, it gradually became a general term for any manuscript illumination, and then the term was applied to all art on a smaller scale. Finally, in English, it became a descriptor for any object of a small size.

The depiction of the opening to hell as a serpent’s gaping jaws is part of the Hellmouth tradition that flourished in England from Anglo-Saxon times. Here is the Winchester Psalter’s depiction of an angel locking the door to hell, indicating the impossibility of passage from hell to Heaven.
On a personal note, as I was writing this I recalled a family holiday when I was 5 years old. We visited Hell’s Mouth, Porth Neigwl on the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales (place names which are easier to write than pronounce unless you grew up in Wales), a 4-mile sandy beach with prominent headlands at either end. On the map, its shape mimics the gaping mouth of a dragon; it was named for this and for the dangerous currents and choppy waters in the bay in which sailors and more recently swimmers have died. I was always forbidden to swim in the sea there by my parents whenever we visited.

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