Jesus Christ rose from the dead in a closed tomb on the third day after his death on the cross, as He himself had told to his disciples and as an angel had told to the myrrh-bearers who came to anoint the Savior’s body (Matthew 16: 1). “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24: 5–7; Matthew 28: 5–6; Mark 16: 6). In the first years of Christianity the scene of the Resurrection of Christ represented the myrrh-bearers at the Holy Sepulcher. During the post-iconoclastic period (since the 9th century) iconography of the Resurrection of Christ – The Descent into Hell developed in a different way.
In the center of the composition the Savior is shown wearing a mandorla (aureole of light and glory) trampling upon the crossed doors of gates to hell. To His right or left are Adam raising from the dead, whom the Savior holds by the hand. Beside Adam or on the other side of the Savior is Eva dressed in a scarlet omophorion. Behind Adam and Eva stand John the Baptist, kings, prophets and the righteous. The scene is set against the background of hills. The composition may also include angels holding the Golgotha Cross, angels against the background of the mandorla or angels with the instruments of passion. Other versions may show the figure personifying hell, demons and angels enchaining them. The Savior redeemed the first man’s sin by his death and saved him.
Iconography of the Resurrection – The Descent into Hell is based on the apocryphal Gospel according to Nicodemus. The development of the iconography was also impacted by some psalms and prophesies, the Epistles of the Apostle Paul and the works by the Holy Fathers. According to the Gospel according to Nicodemus, Jesus takes Adam by the hand, who is kneeling before him with the words of gratitude: “I will exalt you, Lord, for you lifted me out of the depths... You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead” (Psalms, 30: 1–5). This is the main event of the Gospel story - “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians, 15: 20–22). Beside Adam is commonly portrayed the figure of Eva.
The Savior descending into Hell is shown wearing a shining aureola – mandorla – a symbol of glory and light. According to the Gospel of Nicodemus, “Jesus put to flight by the brightness of his majesty all the darkness of death.” With his hand he holds a scroll, a symbol of victory over death. Jesus Christ, as victor of Death and Hell is shown standing on the crossed gates to hell. Beside the gates lie scattered keys and nails meant to indicate the destroyed locks.
The Savior fulfilled the Old Testament prophesies and led the righteous of hell “having overcome death by death.” That is why Adam and Eva are shown followed by the Old Testament kings and prophets who predicted this event – Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon, Daniel and others. Behind Eva traditionally stands Abel, the first righteous and martyr. Some icons also portray John the Baptist pointing to Jesus Christ as the way to salvation and calling for penitence: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew, 3: 2.).
In Byzantine art the Resurrection of Christ – The Descent into Hell iconography had developed by the 10th century. Initially, such compositions appeared in book miniatures; since the 10th century they have been widespread in church wall-paintings. In Russian medieval art this composition is encountered in frescoes of the Theodor Stratilatis Church on Ruchei in Novgorod (the second half of the 14th century) and on 14th century Pskovian icons, now held in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.
Zhanna G. Belik,
Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.
Olga E. Savchenko,
research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.
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