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The Descent into Limbo: Roundel above Centre Panel
Giovanni dal Ponte
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Christ, holding a white banner with a red cross over his shoulder, reaches out towards a crowd of figures who are squeezed into the right-hand spandrel (the space above the curved moulding of the main panel). On the opposite spandrel three devils are crushed under the fallen doors of hell, which Christ has just trampled down. Between the Crucifixion and Resurrection, Jesus was thought to have gone down into hell and led out the souls of the righteous who had died since the beginning of the world.

The scene takes place immediately above the central panel of a large polyptych (a multi-panelled altarpiece) which originally sat on the high altar of the church of the Camaldolese nunnery of San Giovanni Evangelista at Pratovecchio in Tuscany. Several of its panels are now in the National Gallery’s collection.

Key facts
Artist Giovanni dal Ponte
Artist dates about 1385 - 1437
Full title The Descent into Limbo: Roundel above Centre Panel
Group Ascension of John the Evangelist Altarpiece
Date made about 1420-4?
Medium and support Egg tempera on wood
Dimensions 20 x 20 cm
Acquisition credit Bought, 1857
Inventory number NG580.7
Location in Gallery Not on display
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Ascension of John the Evangelist Altarpiece

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This large, gilded polyptych (multi-panelled altarpiece) is one of the few almost complete early Renaissance altarpieces in the National Gallery’s collection. It was made for the church of San Giovanni Evangelista, in Pratovecchio, Tuscany, probably in the 1420s.

Altarpieces on the high altar had to show the saint to whom the church was dedicated. Here, in the centre panel, we see Saint John the Evangelist being raised to heaven by Christ. A crowd of saints seems to watch from the large panels on either side.

The nuns at Pratovecchio were Camaldolites – a small, strict religious order found mainly in Italy – and the saints on the altarpiece would have been those who were important to them. This is one of the few surviving paintings of this date which might well have been commissioned by women – two abbesses – for the use of women.

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