The Descent of Christ into Hell – Resurrection in Orthodox Iconography

The biggest and most important holiday of the Orthodox world is the Resurrection of the Lord – Easter, and the usual depiction of this event is Christ’s descent into Hell. After his death on the cross, on Friday, and before his bodily resurrection from the grave, on Sunday, Jesus Christ descended to Hell, to Hell, to save the souls of all the deceased righteous. Thus his sacrifice was not limited to the living, but extended to all those who preceded his death on the cross. At the same time, his bodily resurrection is a confirmation of the resurrection of all the dead before the Last Judgment and faith in the eternal life of the righteous.

An angel shows the Myrrh-bearing women the empty tomb of Christ, fresco, Mileseva, Serbia, 13th century

Messiah and Passover

The feast of Christ’s resurrection is inextricably linked to the Hebrew feast of Passover. The original meaning of the word “pasach” or “pasha” is not known to us, but later, this term was interpreted as “passing” or “going out”. Pesach was originally a feast of shepherds, celebrated during the first full moon after the spring equinox. It was a family holiday and the ceremony was performed by the host of the house. Then, when they left nomadic life, the Jews settled in Palestine where they began to celebrate the Passover with the Feast of Unleavened Bread which came a few days later. Both holidays were of pagan origin – a sacrifice to God to pray for progress in the two main branches of their activities – livestock and agriculture.

However, the socio-economic situation changed without interruption, and the holidays adapted to the spiritual needs of the time. Thus, remaining a family holiday, Pesach connected the exodus of the Jews from Egypt with the ancient holiday, gaining a new meaning, above all, the end of the enslavement of the Jewish people and the beginning of a new life.

Later, during the religious reforms of King Josiah, in the year 622 AD, the Passover could only be celebrated in the temples of Jerusalem, and it thus gained the status of the greatest national holiday. Later, during Roman rule, the Jews expected Yahweh to perform another miracle, similar to the Exodus, that would save the people by having the Messiah appear and bring freedom on Easter night.

Indeed, on the Passover evening, Judas Iscariot betrayed Christ, who was then taken to Caiaphas and crucified the next day. His crucifixion and death on the cross were one of the tools for salvation, not only of one nation, but of all humanity.

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Descent into Hell, Church of Christ the Savior, fresco, Constantinople, Byzantium, 14th century

Christ’s descent among the dead

The origin of the iconographic depiction of the descent to Hell is found in ancient Roman art, which showed the emperor victoriously satirizing enemies under his feet and elevating the people tortured by their former ruler. The oldest known composition of the Resurrection dates from the 5th century on a ciborium kept in the Venetian Basilica of St. Mark. There are also three enameled tiles from the 7th century, of Syrian or Palestinian origin, and two frescoes from the 8th century in the Roman church of St. Mary of the Ancient.

All these depictions represented the Resurrection in the form of the Descent into Hell, although this event is not of biblical but of apocryphal origin (Nicodemus’ Gospel, 4th century). Then, the great Byzantine philosophers Epiphanius of Cyprus, Athanasius the Great, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Theologian and John of Damascus, supplemented the topic, adding a stronger and deeper didactic feature.

In Byzantine iconography, the Descent into Hell was, at first, depicted very simply. Christ extends his hand to Adam and Eve who are in the sarcophagus, which is a symbolic gesture that signifies the salvation of all the dead Righteous. Also, Christ is surrounded by Abel, David, Solomon and John the Baptist. Beginning in the 12th century, this composition was enriched with other characters and a multitude of new elements.

Jesus Christ is surrounded by a mandorla and stands at the broken gates of Hell (Matt. 16:18). The broken door symbolizes the victory of Good over Evil and, in iconography, has existed since the 9th century, while the broken and crossed door, forming a sign of victory through sacrifice, dates from the 10th century. Broken keys, locks, padlocks and shackles next to the door, symbolizing complete victory, enter Byzantine art in the 11th century.

By the end of the 14th century, the composition possessed several special elements: Christ’s feet pierced with nails; Christ holds the martyr’s cross instead of the scroll, the symbol of the creative Word; Adam and Eve are side by side, to the left or right of Christ; Eva is wearing a white dress instead of a red maphorion. Very rarely, in the hands of Saint John the Baptist, there is an open scroll with the inscription: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3: 2). Sometimes, King David also holds an open scroll in his hand, but that element dates from the 60s of the 14th century from the fresco of one of the meteoric monasteries.

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Descent into Hell, fresco, Studenica, Serbia, 14th century

The bodily resurrection of Christ

The first depiction of the Descent into Hell, in Russian art, was seen at the beginning of the 11th century, in the form of a fresco, in the Kiev church of St. Sophia. Then, until the end of the 16th century, thanks to icons brought from Byzantium, the Resurrection was depicted as the Descent into Hell. However, under Western influence, changes took place, and the bodily resurrection of Christ was added to the composition. This motif is of a later date, between the 12th and 14th centuries, and originates from Italy and continental Europe.

Thus, both themes, theologically close, were united and the composition of the Easter holiday became more complex. Very quickly, this composition was supplemented with new elements such as the Myrrh-bearers, women who bring myrrh to Christ’s tomb. The significance of this motif, on which there is no Christ, but only an empty tomb, was the same, except that it depicted the Resurrection as a completed act. Later, the holy women became an element of an extended composition depicting Christ hovering above the sarcophagus, surrounded by various miniature depictions – the Crucifixion, Laying in the Tomb, Thomas’ Disbelief, Ascension …

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Descent into Hell, icon, Greece, 16th century. Descent into Hell, icon, Moscow, Russia, 16th century

The first icons with this multifaceted theme came from the cities of the Dvina region, in the north of Russia. They formed part of the new aspirations that bore the name of the rich trading and landowning family Stroganov, the great patrons of art. At the beginning of the 17th century, the Russian North entered into lively trade relations with Western Europe, which brought Latin influence to Russian iconography. This change, which took root in the cities of the Dvina, spread to central Russia, and already during the first half of the 17th century it became common in the iconography of the Volga region.

In the end, that style was accepted by Moscow, primarily in the Imperial School with its headquarters in the Kremlin’s Palace of Weapons. The change in the composition of the Resurrection did not take place only on a visual level, but also followed the spiritual reforms that were introduced into the Russian Church in the middle of the 17th century by Patriarch Nikon.

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Resurrection of Christ and Descent into Hell, icon, Central Russia, 17th century

Easter, the center of the liturgical year

The composition of the motif became diagonal with the center in the risen Christ and the light procession of the Righteous towards Paradise. In this way, the Byzantine dynamics of one particular moment were transformed into a rhythmic composition that emphasized the processional character of the event.

The inscriptions also changed their meaning, moving more towards the celebration of events than towards the monumentality and eschatological side of Christ’s descent into Hell. A new detail appeared, expressing the didactic value, and it became an obligatory element of the composition. In the lower left corner is a monster with gaping jaws from which the dead emerge. It is Leviathan (Jn. 3: 8/7, 12/40, 25-41, 26), a demon from Phoenician mythology who symbolizes the forces of Evil. In iconography, he represents Satan, while his gaping jaws are the personification of Hell.

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Resurrection of Christ and Descent into Hell with 12 Great Feasts, icon, Russia, 19th century

At the end of the 17th century, another motif appeared in Russian iconography, depicting the liturgical year in 12 scenes, while in the center is the Resurrection of Christ, thus being marked as the culmination of the entire faith of Orthodox Christians.

Saint Justin (Popović) Ćelijski, in one sentence, summarized the meaning of the Lord’s resurrection:

“The God-man Christ is resurrected, in order to pave the way to the resurrection of all human nature by the resurrection of his human nature.”


Source: Balkan Magazin – Aktuelnosti by www.balkanmagazin.net.

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