Harrowing of Hell (Christ in Limbo)

Albrecht Dürer
Harrowing of Hell (Christ in Limbo)

An original Albrecht Dürer engraving.


Original engraving printed in black ink on laid paper.

Signed in the plate with the artist’s monogram lower right, dated in the plate upper center.

A superb 16th century Meder “c” (of “e”) impression, showing a faint horizontal scratch across the sleeve of Christ, but printed prior to the appearance of the scratches above Adam and Eve and above the flag. One of fifteen plates comprising the Engraved Passion.

Catalog: Bartsch 16; Dodgson 63; Panofsky 123; Meder 16.c; Strauss 66; Schoch/Mende/Scherbaum 58.

The Engraved Passion is composed of fifteen engravings. Five were engraved between 1507 and 1511 and the remaining ten in 1512. Unlike the woodcut books, the Passion engravings were not accompanied by text, but from Dürer’s Netherlands diary, we know that he customarily sold them as a set. Dürer’s engravings are more somber and restrained in their presentation of Christ’s passion than either the large or small woodcut versions. The fineness of the engraved lines enabled Dürer to suggest in these scenes an almost spiritual light. The same fineness also made possible a greater exploration of facial expression, thereby expanding psychological dimensions.

Adam and Eve are both on the left, Moses is behind them, Cerberus above. Christ is shown rescuing John the Baptist by grasping his joined hands. Eve here appears as temptress instead of in the bashful stance of earlier depictions of this subject. The episode was recorded by Dürer also in his large and small woodcut Passions, but only in this rendering is the scene viewed from the viewpoint of Hell. Freidrick Winkler in his 1957 book Albrecht Dürer, Leben und Werk, refers to this print as a “new and felicitous rendering, bearing witness to Dürer’s inventiveness and imagination.”

The influence of Dürer on Rembrandt becomes apparent when this engraving is compared to Rembrandt’s 1638 etching “Adam & Eve” (Bartsch 28). Rembrandt appropriated Dürer’s depiction of Satan as a dragon, instead of as the usual snake. Something of the intimate relationship between Adam and Eve appears also to have been borrowed by Rembrandt from Dürer.