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Harrowing of Hell, and Christ, Thomas and Mary Magdalene, in The Winchester Psalter

Harrowing of Hell, and Christ, Thomas and Mary Magdalene, in The Winchester Psalter

Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum

Date: 1150

Shelfmark: Cotton MS Nero C IV

Item number: f.24r

Length: 32

Width: 22.5

Scale: Centimetres

Genre: Illuminated Manuscript

Traditionally called the 'St Swithun Psalter' because it contains a prayer to the saint, this psalter's origins can be placed at Winchester, probably at the Cathedral Priory, which is dedicated to him. It is beautifully illustrated with a series of full-page tinted drawings which probably reflect the tastes and high social status of Hugh of Blois, Bishop of Winchester (1129-1171), patron of the arts, and brother of King Stephen. Hugh had been a monk at Cluny where sumptuous visual art abounded. The psalter, though, was made in England, having some details which relate back to 11th Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. Hugh of Blois may have used it as a prayerbook either privately or during the daily monastic prayers called the divine office.

Like most of the other full-page pictures, this page is divided into two panels. It shows three events after Christ's death on the cross: above, the harrowing of hell and, below, Christ's meetings with Thomas (left) and Mary Magdalene after his resurrection. In the harrowing of hell, Christ, holding a cross-staff with banner, frees all the souls from hell. Adam and Eve are the first to ascend from the mouth of hell into the light radiated by the sun in the upper right corner. An angel holds a spear over the bound devil, while Christ tramples the demons. The rhythmic curving lines of the figures, their elongation and the fantastic tree are features of a contemporary painting style.

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