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(Delft: ca. 1470). Leaf: 175 x 122 mm. (6 7/8 x 4 3/4"); Frame: 250 x 195 mm. (9 3/4 x 7 3/4"). No text on recto or verso.
In an attractive wooden frame. A FINELY PAINTED MINIATURE OF THE HARROWING OF HELL within an arch-topped compartment, the mouth of hell depicted on the left with a fiery red interior and five people emerging from it, the figure of Christ on the left, holding a cross on a long staff and half-clothed in a pink and blue robe, the background with a castle in the distance, ALL OF THIS BENEATH A VERY DETAILED ARCHITECTURAL CANOPY suspended in the sky, AND THE WHOLE WITHIN A FULL BORDER of acanthus leaves and other foliage and flowers in reds, blues, greens, yellows, and brushed gold, along with very many small burnished gold ivy leaves and buds on hairline stems, a small stork in the bottom border and a large delicately shaded angel in the left border. ◆Left margin trimmed very close to decoration (just escaping loss, and the other three margins ample), mild darkening right at fore and tail edge (but not reaching into borders), otherwise IN FINE CONDITION, the colors rich and true, and the burnished gold still shimmering.
This extraordinary miniature, notable for its uncommon subject matter, memorable imagery, and fine workmanship, was produced by a talented artist belonging to the stylistic group known as the Masters of the Delft Half-Length Figures. The subject here is infrequently depicted in Books of Hours: the Harrowing of Hell appears as a full-page miniature in only three of the 119 prayer books described by Roger Wieck in his "Time Sanctified" (and three others contain a Harrowing depiction inside an initial). Christian theological tradition tells us that after his crucifixion, Christ went to liberate souls from Limbo--a location inhabited by those barred from entry into Heaven because they died before the Redemption. In our scene, Christ, wrapped in a regal cloak and carrying a long staff, his hands and feet still bleeding from the wounds he received on the Cross, reaches into an absolutely wonderful Hellmouth to extricate Adam and Eve and other naked souls, while the recently deceased and original saint, John the Baptist, still clad in an animal skin garment, waits patiently for his turn to emerge. The great maw of Hell as depicted here has bulging eyes, a distended snout, thickly matted hair, and a bad complexion; his gaping mouth, punctuated by sharp gray teeth, glows red hot, and one can tell from the creature's expression that he is loath to comply with this rescue of souls. In addition to its compelling subject matter, there is a high level of artistic achievement here, including delicately molded figures, impressively detailed architectural elements, and a lovely color palette. The elegance and quiet sophistication observed in this miniature distinguishes the artist responsible for this work as a particularly talented member of his circle. Active from about 1450-80, the Masters of the Delft Half-Length Figures were named by James Marrow after the angels and other figures whose upper bodies are typically found emerging from a cloud within the borders. Although the present leaf uncharacteristically contains a full-length angel in the border, it shares other stylistic similarities, such as the elaborate architectural canopy hovering over the main composition; and it particularly resembles the work of the artist of Keble College MS 77, an illuminator described in "The Golden Age of Dutch Manuscript Illumination" as "one of the more articulate of the group" whose "figures are more fully modelled and his palette . . . deeper and brighter" than that of his contemporaries. Because the subject of the present miniature goes beyond the standard image program seen in routine productions, and because of the high level of artistic accomplishment seen here, this leaf was almost certainly part of an elaborate Book of Hours produced in response to an important commission. (ST17764)