(b. 1431, Isola di Carturo, d. 1506, Mantova)

Descent into Limbo

c. 1492
Tempera on wood, 39 x 42 cm
Private collection

The story of Christ's descent into Limbo does not appear in the Bible, but in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, and also in the Legenda Aurea of Jacobus da Voragine. Limbo is a neutral zone of Hell where the souls of the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets reside. They are not damned, but cannot ascend into heaven until the coming of Christ. Thus, to the left in Mantegna's painting we have the first human couple, Adam and Eve, the two who, through Original Sin begin the story of Christ's Passion.

The composition seems crowded, largely because the upper and left-hand edges have been cut. Christ bends towards one of the patriarchs emerging from the depth of Hell and whose cloak, caught by the wind, surrounds him like a halo. He turns his face and hands towards Christ. The emotional tension of the scene culminates in dialogue between these two figures.

Mantegna painted several versions of this theme, however, for the most part these works are now available, if at all, only as drawings or engravings.