In the fresco by the Florentine Renaissance painter Fra Angelico (c. 1395–1455) that appears on the cover of this issue (and above), Jesus (numbered 1 in the diagram) liberates an onrushing crowd of righteous from Limbo—recalling the tradition preserved in the 13th-century devotional book, the Meditations on the Life of Christ by St. Bonaventure, in which the just “joyfully hastened to meet Him.” First rescued is Adam (2), who is followed by Moses (3) with rays of light streaming from his forehead, John the Baptist (4), whose hair shirt has grown white with age, Abel (5) with a bloodied head, and a crowned King David (6). Satan (7) is depicted crushed beneath the door of Hell, which has been knocked from its hinges by an earthquake that cracked the cave floor. (One hinge remains in the wall, and bent hinge nails lie on the door.) On the left, Hell’s other demons (8) cower in crevices, trying to escape Christ’s presence. The white stone and the sliver of blue sky barely visible through the doorway stand in contrast with the dark, cavernous background of Hell.
Once again, the figure of Jesus is central; his glory and divinity are emphasized not only by the fact that he floats above, rather than stands on, the door that pins Satan to the floor, but also by his white robe (counterbalancing that of Adam), his nimbus, and his staff with triumphant banner.
This picture is one of a series of small individual frescoes that Fra Angelico made for the monastery of San Marco, in Florence, to adorn the tiny chambers or cells where the monks slept and meditated. It is painted on the wall of Cell 31, which is traditionally identified as the cell of St. Antoninus, the prior of the monastery from 1440 until 1445. (He became archbishop of Florence in 1446.) Antoninus was himself embroiled in a controversy then brewing over the doctrine of the descent into Hell: The Florentine philosophers Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola suggested that Jesus’ descent was simply figurative: His spirit did not actually go to Hell because souls don’t physically move. Rather, the instant Jesus died, the just saw God and thus were in Paradise. Antoninus (in his Summa Theologicae 1.8.4) defended the traditional doctrine—that Jesus actually descended to liberate the righteous dead. Fra Angelico’s emphasis on Jesus’ bodily appearance in Hell makes the hypothesis that he painted the scene for Antoninus attractive—but ultimately unprovable.