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The Descent into Hell

April 8th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously in the Icons of the Great Feasts series

(Click on pictures to see a larger image)

“The Descent into Hell”

by Rolland Luke Dingman

The Resurrection

The actual Resurrection of Jesus Christ was never represented in the ancient tradition of the Church. Previously to its depiction, the Church used the Old Testament scene of the Prophet Jonah coming out of the belly of the whale. In fact, the story of Jonah –usually summarized in one scene: Jonah being either swallowed by the whale or expelled from the mouth of the whale- was one of the most often depicted in the catacombs. The scene remained popular right up to the 6th century.

"Jonah Expelled from the Mouth of the Whale", 3rd century, Rome, Catacomb of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter

"Women At the Tomb with Spices", ca. 230, Dura Europos house church

In the 3rd century, the historical Resurrection, based on the Gospel story, is obliquely represented in the scene of the appearance of the angel to the women bringing spices to the tomb. A few centuries later, the Descent into Hell, from which comes our icon, represented the Resurrection for the first time on one of the ciborium columns of the Basilica de San Marco in Venice, Italy. These last two scenes or images –the women bringing the spices and the descent into hell- comprise the Easter icons of the Eastern Rite Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The Western Church enthusiastically produced images of the actual historical Resurrection beginning in the Renaissance period.

Nowhere in the ancient tradition of the Church do we find an image of the actual historical Resurrection. It is also of interest that the Resurrection of Christ –Easter– is not included among the twelve Great Feasts of the Eastern Rite or Orthodox Churches. Keep in mind that the actual Resurrection is not described by the Gospel writers, either.

“With us, it is the feast of feasts and the celebration of celebrations; it exceeds all other festivals, as the sun excels the stars…” (St. Gregory the Theologian)

Unlike the Raising of Lazarus, a miracle, the Resurrection of Christ is impossible for human perception for it was a demonstration of the absolute omnipotence of the Savior and initiates our own future resurrection, both of which are impossible to comprehend by the human senses.

Also, in the Eastern Liturgy, a parallel is drawn between the Resurrection and Christ’s Nativity.

“Having preserved the seals intact, O Christ, Thou hast arisen from the tomb, and having left unbroken the seals of the immaculate Virgin in Thy Nativity, Thou hast opened to us the gates of Paradise.” (6th Canticle of the Eastern Canon)

Both events are deeply mysterious and inaccessible to our senses. There are no natural outer signs that we could observe. It is unfathomable and so the tradition of representing only the moment before the actual Resurrection, the descent into hell, and the moment after, the angel appearing to the spice-bearing women, developed.

The Descent into Hell

The Gospel writers do not say anything of the descent into hell. Only St. Peter speaks of it in his words on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-39) and, in the 3rd chapter of his first Epistle (1 Peter 3:19) –“He went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” The iconography comes to us mostly from the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus in which Christ’s triumph over Satan and the Kingdom of Death is thrillingly described.

In the icon we see depicted the moment of Christ’s complete degradation to the very depths of fallen humanity. To redeem humanity by experiencing everything possible to experience as a human, Jesus descended to Hades. It is there that Adam and Eve were confined after their deaths and with them all who followed in the sleep of death. We see that Christ has pulled down the gates of hell which he now steps on. His stunning white garments contrast with the gaping black hole at the center of the earth. Death, or Satan, lies shackled in the darkness. Just when Satan thought he had won, he finds himself triumphed over. Christ appears not as a captive but as a Conqueror to deliver the imprisoned. Adam and Eve are literally pulled out of their tombs by the Lord, the Master of Life. The first Adam rescued by the new Adam.

Also rescued with Adam and Eve are all the Old Testament saints. Representing them, on the left, wearing crowns and royal robes are King David and King Solomon. Between them and Christ is John the Baptist. As he did while alive John points out the arrival of the Savior. On the right in the icon is Abel, holding a shepherd’s staff. It was the shepherd Abel, a son of Adam, who sacrificed one his best lambs to God. He himself was killed by his brother Cain and thus became the first to taste death. Here he meets Jesus, the victor over death. With Abel is Moses who, like John the Baptist, is one of the first to recognize the Lord and so gestures toward Him.

But, while the icon depicts the lowest point to which Christ could descend –his total debasement– it also shows us the first light of the coming Resurrection. The brilliant white robed figure of Christ radiates golden beams of light within a powerful blue colored mandorla which pierces and breaks through the arching rock cliffs.

In some versions of this icon nails, and broken chains and locks from the fallen gates are scattered about. Often angels are shown binding Satan with the chains. Christ sometimes holds a scroll symbolizing His preaching to the dead; sometimes He holds a cross in the form of a staff, a symbol of victory.

References

1. Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, (Crestwood, St. Vadimir’s Seminary Press, 1989)

2. The Mystical Language of Icons, Solrunn Nes, (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005)

Picture Sources

Descent into Hell icon: http://www.lukedingman.com/icons3.htm

Jonah and the Whale (edited): http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/smarthistory/early_christianity_smarthistory.html

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