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The Harrowing of Hell

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    15th century (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carved, painted and gilt alabaster

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Dr W. L. Hildburgh FSA

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

The panel represents the apocryphal story from the gospel of Nicodemus, retold in 'The Golden Legend', of Christ's descent into limbo, when he led out of Hell Adam and the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament who had died before he redeemed mankind.
There are at least eight other recorded English alabaster panels of the subject.

Physical description

The haloed and bearded Christ, wearing the torse and a loincloth, with a cloak over his shoulders, is on the left of the panel. He strides to the left in what is undoubtedly an awkward position anatomically. A scroll which has now lost all trace of its original painted text curves from his mouth. He holds across his body in his right hand the cross-staff of the Resurrection, symbol of victory over death, and firmly grasps the wrist of the naked bearded figure of Adam in his left hand. He looks down at Adam and the other seven figures which include a naked Eve and a bearded St. John the Baptist, last of the prophets, identified by his camel-skin. They come out of the jaws of the Leviathan, the legendary creature which represents the mouth of hell in the medieval convention. A small devil, seated on the monster's head on the top right corner of the panel, doubtless represents the doorkeeper of hell; he holds a key in his left hand and blows a horn.

The top of Christ's cross-staff is missing and most of the devil's horn. Blue paint is on Christ's cloak and red paint in its lining. Green paint and the usual daisy pattern decorate the lower ground. The head of Leviathan is brown. The upper background of the panel is gilt with missing gesso knobs. Some of the paint looks modern. Most of the panel has been backed with slate. The bottom has been cut away.

Place of Origin

England (made)


15th century (made)



Materials and Techniques

Carved, painted and gilt alabaster


Height: 580 mm, Width: 320 mm, Depth: 56 mm

Object history note

On loan to the Museum from Dr W.L. Hildburgh since 1953. Given by Dr Hildburgh in 1955.

Descriptive line

Panel relief, alabaster, depicting the Harrowing of Hell, English, 15th century

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Cheetham, Francis. English Medieval Alabasters. Oxford: Phaidon-Christie's Limited, 1984. p. 271 (cat. 198), ill. ISBN 0-7148-8014-0


Alabaster; Paint; Gilt


Carving; Painting; Gilding

Subjects depicted

Halo; Torse; Cloak; Staff; Key; Devil; Horns; Loincloth; Scroll


Christianity; Religion; Sculpture


Sculpture Collection

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