Archive for August, 2017

Changing the picture of hell: 23 August

August 23, 2017

Giovanni Rimini Harrowing Only

Here is Jesus pulling people out of hell. This was the dominant picture of hell for many years. ‘Look! Jesus rescues people from hell.’ A hopeful picture.

This picture is one of six which together make up the Scenes from the Life of Christ, by Giovanni di Rimini, usually seen in Rimini, but currently, until 8 October, in a special small exhibition at the National Gallery in London. The catalogue describes the painting as showing the standard highlights of the life of Jesus. At the time, 1300 – 1305, it was normal to show Jesus pulling people out of hell.

Jesus pulling people out of hell is usually called The Harrowing of Hell. Harrowing here has an old, Middle English, meaning of Despoiling. Jesus is making hell impotent, depleted, empty. This is an accepted and important part of what Jesus came to do.

Very soon, though, this picture changed dramatically. Dante’s Inferno, the most influential book on hell ever, was written about 1314. Over the door of Dante’s hell is written ‘Abandon hope all you who enter here.’ The idea that Jesus can and does pull people out of hell was quashed. Fear replaced hope.

Dante was writing graphically about the hell described by the theologian Thomas Aquinas. The Church made this ‘no hope, more fear’ version of hell the dominant one. The Harrowing of Hell was no longer painted. Instead we see

Salisbury-St-Thomass-credit-to-www.visitwiltshire.co_.uk_Photo from www.visitwiltshire.co.uk

Here Jesus presides over people being thrown into a vividly tormenting hell. Jesus is far removed from these people, and seems not to care about them. Their awful fate is sealed as decided, or supervised, by Jesus.

These pictures, of the Doom, or Last Judgement, became common, replacing the Harrowing of Hell. Above is the best preserved English painting, in St Thomas’ Church, Salisbury, painted about 1475.

Florence Duomo Fresco 2Photo by Paolo Villa – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39353393

Here is perhaps the most well-known Last Judgement painting, from the Duomo Cathedral in Florence. The artist Vasari began this in 1568 and it was completed by Federico Zuccari in 1579.

As in the English painting, the people in inescapable torment in hell are closest to the congregation. Seeing these agonised people, remote from Jesus, gives a very different message from seeing Jesus pulling people out of hell. ‘Look Jesus presides over people being tormented in hell forever.’

Hell changed in the early 1300s. The painting now in the National Gallery is perhaps the last still to show Jesus pulling people out of hell.

Why did the picture of hell change then? What is the true picture of hell? My book The Lie of Hell www.laddermedia.co.uk gives answers. Or search ‘hell’ for other posts on this blog.

The picture of hell has changed. It needs to change again – to the Hades and Gehenna about which Jesus spoke. Hades the tormenting remand prison before Final Judgement; Gehenna the unquenchable fire after Final Judgement where some unrepentant humans are destroyed, body and soul. This dual picture includes Jesus having, and, by implication, using, the keys of Hades, pulling people out of Hades. A stern warning and a serious, sure, splendid, hope.

Roger Harper

 

Advertisements