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The Descent in Hell

The Descent

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625) and Hans Rottenhammer (1564-1625). Mauritshuis. – The Hague. 1597.

The descent into hell of Jesus is not told in the Gospels. The Golden Legend however recalled a story from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus and thus spread the tale in the Middle Ages. The early Church Fathers speculated about the subject to conclude that Jesus had only reached the outer borders of hell, the limboG41. The story is a legend. It is a narration used to explain the nagging issue of how all souls of the righteous people who had died before the Redemption of Christ could have been rescued by his death and brought to heavens anyway. The story has mythological references, like the legend of Orpheus and also later the descent of Dante in the Inferno.

Jan Brueghel the Elder made a painting of this theme around 1597. It is a painting on copper plate. Copper plate is a marvellous medium for paint. The luminosity of the pigments on the very smooth metal surface is extraordinary. The layers of paint on copper are very thin so that a special interaction can take place between the light waves, the paint and the underlying medium. Paint is laid down very thinly on copper; it has thus translucent hues and a brilliance that is absent on canvas.

Painting on copper started in the sixteenth century. It seems that Sebastiano del Piombo was one of the first to use this medium, but other Italians like Correggio and Parmigianino used it. Northern painters who worked in Rome took over this art. Especially the Germans Adam Elsheimer and Johann Rottenhammer painted on copper and then the Flemish-Brabant artists Paul Bril and Bartholomew SprangerN9. Spranger had stayed in Rome and travelled to Vienna and Prague to work for the emperors Maximilian II and Rudolph II. Around 1600 Johann Rottenhammer worked together with other artists. Rottenhammer was a specialist of copper and of figure painting. He worked with landscape painters such as Paul Bril and Jan Brueghel. But of course it was impossible in these centuries to have very large surfaces in copper, so the formats have remained small, giving intimate pictures used for sole commissioners and for private collections.

No other painter than Jan Brueghel the Elder painted as often on copper. He was a painter of Antwerp who worked in the golden period of this metropolis. Born in 1568, he was the second son of the great Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Like his father he travelled to Italy then became the court painter of the Archdukes Albert and Isabella who were governors of the Southern Netherlands for the Emperor of the Holy German Empire. He painted landscapes and especially flower still lives. He was a friend of Pieter Paul Rubens and when van Dyck opened a workshop in Antwerp, his companion was also this Jan Brueghel. Jan apparently liked to work with other masters since his ‘Descent into Hell’ was also a collaboration with Johann or Hans Rottenhammer. Rottenhammer was born in Munich in 1654, so he was somewhat older than Brueghel was. He installed himself in Venice around 1596 and he also worked in Rome. Later, he returned to Germany and worked at various courts, among which again the court of Emperor Rudolph II. He died in Augsburg in 1625, the same year as Jan Brueghel’s death. The painting of Jan Brueghel and Hans Rottenhammer dates from around 1597, the turn of the century.

Hell is represented as a dark cave, guarded on the right by a smoking castle and a lake. Jesus has entered the darkness and he is tearing people out of the pool of hell, out of the hands of devils. Jesus is accompanied by Adam and Eve who were the first to be redeemed, thus are symbols of the beginning of time. Adam is white-bearded and that detail is a testimony for the passage of centuries. Adam and Eve hold the banner of the Resurrection of Christ: a red cross on a white flag. This banner will exorcise the devils and other malefic creatures of hell that dance around. The flag is bound to a high cross, the cross of redemption that no evil can resist. Satan is also behind Jesus in a crazy, frenetic dance. Satan’s devils throw some of the people that Jesus has helped out of the pit back in another hole and furnace. These souls will be eternally doomed. The righteous are being dressed to cover their nakedness before stepping outside and are seen leaving the cave of hell through the opening on the right. Jan Brueghel has really thought privately that also infidels could be redeemed. Thus, a person with a Moorish turban is seen leaving with the others.

Jan Brueghel and Hans Rottenhammer remembered the Flemish-Brabant tradition of representation of monstrous figures by their forefathers Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. These made various versions of nightmare and hell scenes peopled by a myriad of monsters and devils. Remark the hideous features of the devils, dancing around as monkeys, which are quite in this tradition.

Even in a picture like this, structure was introduced. Thus, a line goes from the devil in the upper left over Satan behind Adam and Eve to the pit of the doomed. The redemption line of the Saviour crosses this evil line. This then is the line of Jesus and the escape through the hopeful opening of the cave. Remark the difference between the nicely painted nude humans in the pool before Jesus and the small, monkey-like devils.

The ‘Descent in Hell’ was a work made for a private commissioner, to be held in his chapel or house. The work induces thought about the transitoriness of life and the ultimate hope brought by Jesus’ redemption. It is also one of the finest paintings on copper plate.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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