Photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College
Gallery Text

This panel is by the Master of the Osservanza, named after a large altarpiece in the church of the Osservanza outside of Siena. It belongs to the predella, or lower register, of a similar altarpiece that presents episodes from the Passion of Christ. Although the altarpiece from which it comes was dismantled and is now difficult to reconstruct accurately, all five scenes from its predella survive. They form one of the artist’s most important narrative cycles and are among the most remarkable Sienese paintings of the fifteenth century.

Predellas devoted to the Passion were not uncommon, but the depiction of the Descent into Limbo is unusual and may relate to a Sienese literary source. In La resurrezione (The Resurrection), a fourteenth-century poem by Niccolò Cicerchia, Christ storms through hell, helping the three patriarchs — Adam, Abel, and Noah — to escape. Here they may be the older men being drawn to the luminous glow of the resurrected Christ.

Identification and Creation
Object Number
Master of the Osservanza, Italian (active c. 1425 - c. 1480)
Previously attributed to Sassetta, Italian (c. 1400-1450)
The Descent into Limbo
Other Titles
Alternate Title: Christ in Limbo
Work Type
c. 1445
Creation Place: Europe, Italy, Tuscany, Siena
Persistent Link
Level 2, Room 2500, European Art, 13th–16th century, Art and Image in Europe
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Physical Descriptions
Tempera on panel
image: 35.9 x 43 cm (14 1/8 x 16 15/16 in.)
panel: 37.8 x 47.1 x 3.7 cm (14 7/8 x 18 9/16 x 1 7/16 in.)
frame: 49.3 x 56.2 x 8 cm (19 7/16 x 22 1/8 x 3 1/8 in.)
Purchased by William Hopetoun Carnegie, 8th Earl of Northesk, Rome, c. 1860, by inheritance to his son; George John Carnegie, 9th Earl of Northesk, sold?; to R. Langton Douglas, London, sold; to Paul J. Sachs, Cambridge, 1915, gift; to Fogg Art Museum, 1922.

1. The 8th Earl of Northesk was a connoisseur who lived in the Palazzo Poli in Rome for about twenty years.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Paul J. Sachs, "A testimonial to my friend Edward W. Forbes"
Accession Year
Object Number
European and American Art
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Publication History

George Harold Edgell, "The Loan Exhibition of Italian Paintings in the Fogg Museum, Cambridge", Art and Archaeology (July - December 1915), Vol. II, pp. 11-22, p. 13

William N. Bates, "Archaeological News: Notes on Recent Excavations and Discoveres; Other News", American Journal of Archaeology (January - March 1918), Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 73-100, p. 97

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Loan Exhibition of the Arts of the Italian Renaissance, exh. cat. (New York, 1923), p. 5, cat. no. 5, repr.

Agnes Mongan, Memorial Exhibition: Works of Art from the Collection of Paul J. Sachs [1878-1965]: given and bequeathed to the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, exh. cat., Harvard University (Cambridge, MA, 1965), p. 9, cat. no. 87, repr.

Edward Waldo Forbes, Yankee Visionary, Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1971), p. 36, repr. in b/w p. 37

Kristin A. Mortimer and William G. Klingelhofer, Harvard University Art Museums: A Guide to the Collections, Harvard University Art Museums and Abbeville Press (Cambridge and New York, 1986), no. 168, p. 149, repr.

Edgar Peters Bowron, European Paintings Before 1900 in the Fogg Art Museum: A Summary Catalogue including Paintings in the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 1990), p. 35, color plate; pp. 119, 301, repr. b/w cat. no. 558

Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, "The Wound in the Wall", University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL, 2000), pp. 101-102, repr. in b/w as fig. 11

Benjamin David, "Past and Present in Sienese Painting: 1350-1550", Res (Autumn 2001), 40, pp. 77-100, p. 82, repr. as fig. 8, p. 83, repr. in color inside back cover

Carl Brandon Strehlke, Italian Paintings 1250-1450 in the John G. Johnson Collection and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia, PA, 2004), p. 298; repr. in b/w p. 300 as fig. 52.7

Stephan Wolohojian and Alvin L. Clark, Jr., Harvard Art Museum/ Handbook, ed. Stephan Wolohojian, Harvard Art Museum (Cambridge, 2008), p. 56, repr.

Max Seidel, Andrea de Marchi, and Gabriele Fattorini, Le arti a Siena nel primo Rinascimento: da Jacopo della Quercia a Donatello, exh. cat., Federico Motta Editore (Milan, Italy, 2010), pp. 272-275, under cat. no. C.35, our work mentioned on p. 272, repr. in reconstruction p. 274.

Sally Anne Duncan and Andrew McClellan, The Art of Curating: Paul J. Sachs and the Museum Course at Harvard, Getty Research Institute (Los Angeles, 2018), pp. 108-109, repr. as fig. 60

Exhibition History

Loan Exhibition of the Arts of the Italian Renaissance, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 05/08/1923 - 09/01/1923

Memorial Exhibition: Works of Art from the Collection of Paul J. Sachs [1878-1965] Given and Bequeathed to the Fogg Art Museum Harvard University Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 11/15/1965 - 01/15/1966; Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York, 12/19/1966 - 02/26/1967

Edward Waldo Forbes: Yankee Visionary, Fogg Art Museum, 01/16/1971 - 02/22/1971

Re-View: S422-423 Western Art of the Middle Ages & Renaissance, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 08/16/2008 - 06/18/2011

32Q: 2500 Renaissance, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/16/2014 - 01/01/2050

Subjects and Contexts

Google Art Project

Related Works

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