The landscape of Hell became increasingly complex throughout the Renaissance. Different areas of Hell were designated for different kinds of folk, including the just, the demonic and the youthful. In this large altarpiece of Christ in Limbo painted in 1552 by the Italian Mannerista artist Agnolo Bronzino for the Church of Santa Croce, Florence, the demons (1 in the diagram) peer over a wall or mountain that separates the Limbo of the just from the grizzlier Hell of the damned. Limbo itself is also presented as having two levels: Those on the lower level (bottom left of the painting) have not yet been redeemed, and reach for (or look longingly at) the Savior (2), who has come to liberate them; those on the upper level have already been freed.

The swirling crowd of adoring just that surrounds Jesus (who holds a banner in his hand and stands on the door of Hell) includes several figures named in the detailed fifth- or sixth-century account of Jesus’ descent, the Gospel of Nicodemus. We see for example Isaiah (3) with his saw—the instrument of his martyrdom—according to an ancient, apocryphal account, David (4) with his harp, John the Baptist (5) with his staff, and the good thief Dysmas (6), with whom Jesus was crucified, carrying Jesus’ cross. (In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells Dysmas, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” [Luke 23:43]; thus Dysmas is sometimes shown accompanying Jesus en route.)1 At right are Adam (7) and Eve (8); rather than focusing on their role as the “first saved” as many artists did, Bronzino seems to emphasize through their garments (or lack thereof) their responsibility for introducing sin into the world. The hoe that Adam holds serves as a reminder of his punishment: “to till the land” (Genesis 3:23).2

Several of the other recognizable biblical figures are specified not in the Gospel of Nicodemus but rather in Dante’s Inferno, which Bronzino undoubtedly knew. These include Moses (9), with a pair of short horns on his head, holding the Ten Commandments. The influence of Dante may also account for the presence of the three children (10) at lower right: In the Inferno, children, men and woman share the same space in the first circle of Hell, whereas in orthodox Medieval and Renaissance theology, the Limbus puerorum (Limbo of children) was separate from the Limbus patrum (Limbo of fathers), and children did not participate in Jesus’ Harrowing of Hell.3 The children may also represent the babies, known as the Holy Innocents, whose unjust massacre at the hands of Herod is recorded in Matthew’s gospel.4

The woman with the sword in the lower right register is not mentioned in the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Inferno or any other known list of the just: She is Judith (11), whose beheading of Holofernes (itself a favorite subject of artists) was understood in medieval interpretation to prefigure the church’s overcoming of Satan through Christ. As Judith stares out at the viewer she points to the One whose actions fulfilled what she herself had begun. The identity of the woman (12) below her is much less certain: With one hand she pulls one of the as-yet-unsaved to safety (mirroring Christ’s gesture) and with the other lightly touches one of the Holy Innocents, which has led some to identify her as Rachel, who weeps for her children in Matthew 2:17–18. Rachel is also one of the characters specified by Dante in the Inferno. Bronzino also painted his well-known contemporary, the artist Pontormo (13), into his scene—and even modeled some of the biblical characters, such as Judith and Rachel, on other Florentine notables of the day.

Who is the man (14) Jesus is raising? It can’t be Adam, since he’s already been redeemed (he’s on the second tier). It might actually be the chapel’s patron, Giovanni Zanchini. Or, the figure could be intended to represent “everyman.” In either case, by introducing a contemporary figure and by depicting the scene in medias res, Bronzino invites viewers to imagine themselves as participants in this scene—similar to the literary strategy of the Meditations of Bonaventure.

From the time of its completion, the controversial painting was criticized for its purportedly erotic use of female nudes and was temporarily banished from the Church of Santa Croce to the more “secular” context of the Uffizi Palace. After its return to the Museum of Santa Croce, the painting was badly damaged when it was submerged (like so many other works of art) in the 1966 flood of Florence. The painting, which has never been photographed in full in color, is being restored by the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali, Florence.