Hell & The Sublime

Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald and The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Pieter Bruegel

Artists of the Northern Renaissance were master storytellers. Hell was a place where fallen angels turned into grotesque beings that would create an environment of pure torture for the damned. Fellow Northern Renaissance artist, Hieronymus Bosch, is particularly well known for his fanciful and disturbing scenes depicting human decadence and the results of that decadence in the afterlife.

XJL62331 Demons Armed with Sticks, detail from the reverse of the Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512-16 (oil on panel) by Matthias Grunewald/ Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar, France
XJL62331 Demons Armed with Sticks, detail from the reverse of the Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512-16 (oil on panel) by Matthias Grunewald/ Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar, France

XIR74037 (detail) The Fall of the Rebel Angels, 1562 (oil on panel) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder/ Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium
XIR74037 (detail) The Fall of the Rebel Angels, 1562 (oil on panel) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder/ Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium

The Last Judgement by Luca Signorelli and Fra Angelico

Preceding their Dutch and Flemish counterparts, Italian Renaissance artists painted intricately detailed Last Judgement scenes of the good being separated from the evil, the damned being pulled into the underworld and the beasts that would haunt them once they got there.

XIR154091 One of the Damned Riding on a Devil, from the Last Judgement (fresco) (detail) by Luca Signorelli/ Duomo, Orvieto, Umbria, Italy
XIR154091 One of the Damned Riding on a Devil, from the Last Judgement (fresco) (detail) by Luca Signorelli/ Duomo, Orvieto, Umbria, Italy

XIR43960 The Last Judgement, detail of the damned in Hell (oil on panel) by Fra Angelico/ Museo di San Marco dell'Angelico, Florence, Italy
XIR43960 The Last Judgement, detail of the damned in Hell (oil on panel) by Fra Angelico/ Museo di San Marco dell'Angelico, Florence, Italy

Medieval Manuscripts

Depictions of hell in the Middle Ages were mainly in the form of illuminated books of hours, or in manuscripts such as reprinted versions of  Dante's The Divine Comedy. The underworld was typically shown as a dark but orderly place with Satan presiding over his court.

CND187030 Usurers in hell, from 'Le Tresor de Sapience' written by Jean Charlier de Gerson (vellum) (detail) by French School/ Musee Conde, Chantilly, France
CND187030 Usurers in hell, from 'Le Tresor de Sapience' written by Jean Charlier de Gerson (vellum) (detail) by French School/ Musee Conde, Chantilly, France

XIR175595 detail from Dante's Inferno with a commentary by Guiniforte deglie Bargigi (vellum) by Italian School, (15th century)/ Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France
XIR175595 detail from Dante's Inferno with a commentary by Guiniforte deglie Bargigi (vellum) by Italian School, (15th century)/ Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France

The Coronation of the Virgin by Enguerrand Quarton

Quarton's epic panel displays all the realms of human existence in amazing detail: the earthly realm, the heavens, purgatory and hell. Below is a detail of the earthly realm with an angel leading the saved out of purgatory (left) while a demon guards the damned in a fiery pit (right).

XIR57626 detail of The Coronation of the Virgin, completed 1454 (oil on panel) by Enguerrand Quarton/ Musee Pierre de Luxembourg, Villeneuve-les-Avignon, France
XIR57626 detail of The Coronation of the Virgin, completed 1454 (oil on panel) by Enguerrand Quarton/ Musee Pierre de Luxembourg, Villeneuve-les-Avignon, France


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