The Harrowing of Hell
The Resurrection of Our Lord is the most important event in human history. It has released us from the power of death and restored our relationship with God and with one another.
The Gospels do not talk about the exact moment of the Resurrection, only of “the morning after”—as that mystery of mysteries is an event far too great and incomprehensible for men. The apparitions of Christ confront the witnesses with a new reality, which will have to be accepted in faith by those who will hear of it from them.
The exact moment of the Resurrection itself was represented from the 11th century onwards, but only in the Western Church. It depicts a scene that was never actually witnessed, a concealed secret, Christ emerging triumphantly from the tomb, while the guards are fast asleep, fallen to the ground.
The Eastern Church retained the more ancient representation, that of the results of the event of the Resurrection for us, the deliverance from the power of Hell. Thus, the most common depictions in Byzantine art are the “Harrowing of Hell” and the “Myrrh-bearers,” the women at the tomb.
The Victory of Christ over Death
The icon of the Resurrection is not content with simply showing us the Risen Christ, or the empty tomb; its aim is not to give us information about the precise moment of the Resurrection. It invites us to contemplate the highest mystery of our Faith: the total victory of Life over death. Death and evil do not have the last word in our existence.
Freely accepting death, Christ assumed the mortal condition of men. As in the death of every man, His body and soul were separated—“He rendered the spirit”—but the union of human and divine natures remained, and thus His flesh was untouched by corruption.
“While corporally in the tomb, Thou were in Hell, with Thy soul, as God; and in Paradise with the thief, and upon Thy throne, with the Father and the Spirit, filling all, being infinite” (Paschal antiphon in the Byzantine liturgy).
Nailed to the Cross, obeying the love of the Father, Christ overcame sin, the origin of death, and the Father resuscitated Him (I Pet 1:21). His humanity is deified and becomes the locus of victory over death.
Jesus Christ was not content with lying in the tomb for three days after His crucifixion. Instead, while His body was entombed, Christ’s soul descended into Hades, or Hell. Christ descended there not to suffer, but to fight, and free the souls trapped there. Just as bringing a light into darkness causes the darkness to disappear, the Source of all Life descending into the abode of the dead resulted in Jesus’ victory over death, and not death’s victory over Jesus. This is the full reality of what Christ’s death and resurrection accomplished.
The Harrowing of Hell
The Resurrection is called in Greek the Anastasis, “raising,” because the victory of Christ is a re-creation, a new beginning.
In turn, the most common Anastasis icon is described as the “Harrowing of Hell.” “Harrow” comes from the Old English word used to describe the ploughing of a field with a cultivator which is dragged roughly over the ground, breaking and churning it up. In the icon, Christ is shown with the instrument of His death, plunging deep into Hades—sometimes He carries the Cross in His hands, sometimes the broken gates of hell are disposed in the shape of a cross, under which Satan is crushed…
The descent of Christ to “hell” is one of the articles of the Apostles’ Creed since the Council of Nicaea, on the basis of Scripture (I Pet. 3:19, 4:6; Ps. 107:6; Heb. 2:14, Eph. 4:8-9; Apoc. 1:18). Many of the Fathers spoke of this “Harrowing of Hell”—St. Melito of Sardis, Tertullian, St. Hippolytus, Origen, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and St. Ambrose.
But inspiration for the iconographic details comes from other sources. For a long time, it was assumed to have been taken from the apocryphal “Gospel of Nicodemus,” but recent scholarship shows that its main sources have been the homilies and liturgical texts in use from the 4th century onwards, as exemplified by the Matins of Holy Saturday in the Byzantine liturgy:
Hell, who had filled all men with fear, Trembled at the sight of Thee, And in haste he yielded up his prisoners, O Immortal Sun of Glory
Thou hast destroyed the palaces of hell by Thy Burial, O Christ. Thou hast trampled death down by thy death, O Lord, and redeemed earth’s children from corruption.
Though thou art buried in a grave, O Christ, though Thou goest down to hell, O Savior, Thou hast stripped hell naked, emptying its graves.
Death seized Thee, O Jesus, and was strangled in Thy trap. Hell’s gates were smashed, the fallen were set free, and carried from beneath the earth on high.
O Savior, death’s corruption could not touch thy holy flesh. Thou hast bound the ancient murderer of man, and restored all the dead to new life.
Thou didst will, O Savior, to go beneath the earth. Thou didst free death’s fallen captives from their chains, leading them from earth to heaven.
In the earth’s dark bosom the Grain of Wheat is laid. By its death, it shall bring forth abundant fruit: Adam’s sons, freed from the chains of death.
Wishing to save Adam, Thou didst come down to earth. Not finding him on earth, O Master, Thou didst descend to Hades seeking him.
O my Life, my Savior, dwelling with the dead in death, Thou hast destroyed the iron bars of hell, and hast risen from corruption.
An Important Synthesis
There were obvious difficulties to represent such a subject. In one composition had to be merged the “good news” brought to the Patriarchs, the victory over Hell and the devil, and the liberation of the just.
Aiming at that synthesis, three types of composition were developed. The most ancient represented Christ descending, trampling on Hades, grabbing Adam’s hand, with the other just coming behind. A second composition represented Christ facing us, standing in the center of the scene; underfoot, the broken gates of Hell, and a representation of the depths of “Hades,” darkness, bolts, chains, and the devil. Christ’s right hand grabs Adam, Eve is on the left, and the just behind. This representation of Christ leaving hell and taking the just with Him is a better expression of the Redemption accomplished. There is still a third representation, in which Christ appears elevated, as in the Transfiguration, standing in a mandorla (an almond-shaped halo), but without touching the just, who are prostrated in adoration, in two compact groups.
The fresco of the Chora Monastery in Constantinople (Istanbul) merges these last two compositions and has become the standard representation.
In the icon, Jesus Christ stands victoriously in the center. Robed in heavenly white, He is surrounded by a mandorla of star-studded light, representing the Glory of God, in the same light as in the icon of the Transfiguration.
But Christ is here shown moving, achieving the work of salvation, vigorously tearing Adam and Eve from their tombs, pulling them by the wrist, and not the hand. It is not Adam and Eve who cling to the Christ, it is He who takes them with Him, to make them live with Him, in His glory. This humble surrender to Jesus is all they need and are able to do. Christ does the rest.
Surrounding the victorious Christ are John the Baptist and the Old Testament righteous (David and Solomon, Abel as a young shepherd-boy). Those who predeceased Christ’s crucifixion descended to Hades, where they patiently waited the coming of their Messiah. Now they are freed from this underworld and mingle freely with Christ and His angels.
The icon of the Harrowing of Hell becomes to some extent the icon of the restoration of the relationship between God and men. The first Adam and the New Adam are for the first time face to face. The bond is recreated between Adam and the source of his life, the creative hand of God catches up with Adam in his fall even unto death.
The underworld, Hades, is shown in the aftershock of Christ’s descent into its heart—in utter chaos. Beneath Christ’s feet—which still carry the marks of His crucifixion—lay the gates of Hades, smashed wide open. Often, they are shown lying in the shape of the Cross. Christ has trampled death by death. Within the dark underworld are scattered broken chains and locks; and at the very bottom is the personified Hades, the devil, prostrate and bound. Hades is not destroyed—it is still there—but its power to bind people is gone. There are no chains, no locked doors.
The liberation of the just and the ascending movement of Christ represent an essential event in the history of our salvation: the movement of the love of God, to be totally fulfilled at the end of the world.
The icon is filled with light, movement, life. It gives us hope, by showing us Christ who draws us out of death to bring us into His own light. Christ goes deep within us, to release us from the chains of our refusal of love and our anguish, our alienating passions and our fears, to restore in us His Resemblance, to awaken us and to lead us to the true life, which is eternal—Christ is truly the primitiae dormientium.