Our painting was originally part of a large triptych in a Spanish private collection. Until 1977 it was attributed to the important Flemish Renaissance master Pieter Coecke van Aelst I. It held 9 paintings that have all been sold separately in the second half of the 20th century.
Sixteenth century Flemish paintings representing Hell, Limbo and Hades rightly rank today amongst the most popular and sought-after subjects for their painterly values, but also for their epic, dramatic and humorous qualities.
Here we see Christ liberating the souls of major figures from the Ancient Testament and rightly taking them into Heaven, while devils are extremely unhappy at this. In the left background you may recognize Adam, Eve and Moses. Until this event, having been born before Christ, these crucial souls could not access Heaven and sat in Limbo, still a good place, but next to Hell.
About Pieter I Coecke van Aelst
Aalst 1502 – 1550 Brussels
Versatile Renaissance artist, active as painter, designer of tapestries, stained glass and engravings, sculptor, architect and writer.
Pupil of two important masters:
- of Bernard van Orley (Brussels before 1490 – 1542 Brussels) in Brussels until 1522;
- of the so-called Master of 1518 (= Jan van Dornicke, circa 1470 – 1527) in Antwerp between 1522 and 1527.
Pieter I married in 1526 in Antwerp his second master’s daughter and continued his workshop at his death in 1527. That same year he joined the local Painter’s Guild of Saint Luc. Pieter the Elder lost his wife before 1529, the couple had two children. After her death he had at least two more children, without getting married.
He travelled to Istanbul in 1533/34 and on his return he is thought to have visited Rome. He settled in Antwerp. Circa 1538/39 he married for the second time, the couple had three children. Circa 1544 he either moved to Brussels or opened a studio there, close to its tapestry studios.
Pieter Brueghel I (1526/30 – 1569) was his pupil between 1545 and 1550; he married Pieter’s daughter. It is thought that at Brueghel’s death Pieter Coecke’s second wife, Mayken Verhulst, became the teacher of his children: Pieter II and Jan I Brueghel.
About our painting
Our painting used to be part of an important triptych in a Spanish private collection. Originally it consisted of nine compositions divided over three double-sided panels.
On the front each panel carried two scenes, so six in total:
- at left the Resurrection and our Christ’s Descent into Limbo
- in the middle the Ascension of Christ and Pentecost
- at right Christ in front of Pontius Pilate and Christ in front of Caiaphas.
At the backside there were just three large scenes:
- at left the Transfiguration of Christ
- in the middle the Multiplication of the Loaves
- at right the Baptism of Christ
At some stage this triptych has been dismantled. First the three large scenes at the backside have been removed. Later on the six paintings at the front were also sold separately.
I received from the previous owner three certificates certifying each time the attribution in full to Pieter Coecke van Aelst:
- from Professor Max Jakob Friedländer, 1/04/1955; this is actually a photograph of the front of the triptych with the certificate written by hand on the back.
- Dr. Xavier-André Flores from Geneva has confirmed this attribution in his study, including the three paintings at the backside, 30/10/1972.
- Finally Professor Lode Seghers from Antwerp, 25/10/77, has also confirmed in his study the attribution by Friedländer of the six panels at the front; he does not mention the three large paintings at the back.
Our separate painting, representing the Descent from Christ into Limbo, has in the recent past twice come up for sale in Spanish auction rooms, each time given in full to Pieter Coecke van Aelst. It remained twice unsold with an estimate of 30.000 € (+ buyer’s premium):
- at Arte Information y Gestion, Seville, 19/11/09:
- at Segre, Madrid, 17/12/13.
At the RKD, The Hague, they only know of the six scenes at the front, one of these being our painting. Its experts consider these six scenes to have been painted during the first half of the 16th century by a follower of Pieter Coecke van Aelst I. I do think that one has to accept the advancing insight of research, meaning that the triptych and our painting can no longer be given in full to Pieter Coecke.
About the subject of our painting
After his crucifixion and before his resurrection Christ is said to have descended into Limbo (in Dutch “het voorgeborchte van de hel”). This is a place between heaven and hell where two types of souls reside:
- of those who were free of sins, but who were born before Christ;
- of children who had died before they were baptised.
These souls enjoy the advantages of heaven, without sadly having access to the direct vision of God. Medieval, Renaissance and even Baroque artists have regularly represented Limbo. They often situated it on the fringes of hell, giving them the oportunity to represent also a few expressive devils, who are either trampled by Christ or (as is the case in our painting) who express their displeasure at his visit.
Sadly since 2007 Limbo is no longer accepted by Roman Catholic theology.
In our painting we see Christ opening the gates of Limbo and taking souls of important figures of the Ancient Testament to Heaven: in the left background Moses (with the horns) and Adam and Eve. The other souls in front of Christ at right must represent a Patriarch, such as Abraham or Jacob, and a Matriarch, such as Sarah or Rachel, or why not the Queen of Sheba.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it is an early, good quality painting with humour: not an evident combiantion in religeous, Renaissance Flemish painting.