The painting The Harrowing of Hell by Albrecht Durer depicts the coming of Jesus to hell and his attempts to liberate the captives. Here the biblical image, strongly influenced by the medieval drama, reaches its climax in the Resurrection; the traditional Christ-knight theme is elaborated with striking originality. The common viewers understand the painting as a unique symbol of the divine nature of Jesus and his unique power (Turner and Olson, p. 22). The spiritual progress culminates in the dramatic ceremony of meeting the devil. Christ descended to hell as God; he ascended to earth as a man. Durer gives this traditional theme a new vividness by letting the images represent the human nature that is exalted in the Ascension. Jesus is given the power of the priesthood to bind and lose and absolve men of their sins provided they first pay what they owe. The emphasis here seems to be on the power of the confessional to compel the reconciliation of a society torn by internal strife.
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The painting reflects an understanding of theology and the role of Jesus Resurrection, his teaching, and beliefs for common people. The scene opens in what might be called the storm. Moreover, Christ himself set an example of an ideal man which an average man should follow, hence he should not be ashamed to beg and be needy. Thus Jesus imposes the same conditions as did the Samaritan, but in muted form (Hutchison, p. 43).
Ransom’s theory of atonement states that the death of Jesus was a ransom or the price paid to the devil in order to prove that there are sinless souls. In a deceptively quiet passage, the Dreamer, now wide awake, encounters a character called Need, who rebukes him for not associating himself with the philosophy of the king, lords, and commons expressed in the previous scene. After all, says Need, if you are governed by temperance, it is no sin for you to get your sustenance by sleight when you are hungry (Turner and Olson, p. 21). The reconciliation of truth, first of all, represents the resolution of the paradox of justice and mercy through redemption. As such it is the rightful climax of this scene. But this reconciliation also has an urgent application in the author’s own time. Occurring as they do in the context of the Resurrection, these images and scenes constitute a powerful appeal to the hostile forces in hell. The unspoken agreement entered into by most present-day viewers to treat the authorship question as settled bids fair to paralyze the efforts of the current generation of scholars to achieve a new breakthrough in understanding (Hutchison, p. 39).
In terms of the early patristic theory, Jesus escaped death miraculously. Followers of this theory suppose that the sufferings and hardships of people are apparent but not real. For these viewers, The Harrowing of Hell will not have meaning and significance as they do not believe in the sugaring and reality of hell. The particular form of this may have varied from viewer to viewer because the notion of the death of Jesus was a flexible concept and not a rigidly prescribed tradition. Thus, one must be prepared to imagine different kinds of settings, depending on internal evidence of the painting and the directions that may have been provided (Kvanvig, p. 29).
In terms of ransom theory, God goes not act by brute force when exchange slaves. For these viewers, The Harrowing of Hell will have a double meaning. They accept the concept of the Harrowing of Hell but reject methods depicted by Durer (Turner and Olson 12). All true laborers who work with their hands, living with humble hearts in love and in law, have the same absolution that was sent to hell. But slaves are not in the bull unless there is a genuine reason for them to be enslaved. Those who live like this may well dread the time when they depart this life. But the old and helpless, women with a child who cannot work, the blind and bedridden, with broken members, who take their mischief meekly, have as full a pardon as the plowman himself. For the love of their humble hearts, our Lord has granted them their penance and their purgatory upon this pure earth (Kvanvig, p. 27).
In sum, the painting inspires different feelings and emotions in common viewers who share different religions beliefs, and understanding of scripture. The interpretation of the painting shows that a person who touches religious paintings sees and feels shapes, etc., can, out of such experiences, objectively characterize anything this way. It seems, then, that there is a mode of perception that is peculiarly aesthetic, about which much will have to be said. Of course, we may be objective in various ways, and some of these ways put perception as a whole in a quite subordinate position, as in systematic thinking about a subject (nuclear physics, e.g.) or in pure mathematics and formal logic, which have no factual subject matter at all to be perceived at any turn.
- Hutchison, J. C. Albrecht Durer. Princeton University Press, 1992.
- Kvanvig, J. L. The Problem of Hell. Oxford University Press, USA, 1993.
- Turner, A. K., Olson, D. The History of Hell. Harvest Books, 1995.