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Question 25.

Αγαπητέ π. Χριστοφόρε, Χριστός Ανέστη!

Η ορθόδοξη εικόνα της Αναστάσεως του Κυρίου επιγράφεται «Η εις Άδου Κάθοδος». Πως όμως μπορεί να δικαιολογηθεί αυτή η επιγραφή αφού ο Χριστός δεν πραγματοποιεί κάθοδο στον Άδη κατά την Ανάστασή του αλλά εξέρχεται από αυτόν; Κάποιοι αγιογράφοι χρησιμοποιούν την επιγραφή «Η Ανάστασις».


Translation of Question 25.

Dear Fr. Christopher, Christ is Risen!

The Orthodox Icon of our Lord’s Resurrection has the inscription “Descent into Hades”. How is this inscription justified as Christ did not descend into Hades during his Resurrection but is coming out of it. Some Icon painters use the inscription “The Resurrection”.


Answer to Question 25

Dear Constantine,

In truth, there is no Resurrection Icon as no one actually saw the moment of the Resurrection. You have probably seen Icons showing Christ above an open tomb holding a flag, but such representations are not in the spirit and teaching of the Church. They were Icons influenced by western representations of the Resurrection and became very common in the Orthodox Church during the years of decadence. Over the past fifty years the Church has slowly returned to the traditional Byzantine representations -namely the Icons known as the “Descent into Hades” and the “Myrrhbearers” although there are other Icons that could also be used for the Resurrection – “The appearance of Christ to the Two Maries”, “On the road to Emmaus” and in general any Icon showing events that immediately followed the Resurrection. You say that Christ did not descend into Hades during his Resurrection, but rather come out of Hades. Yes, he came out of Hades, to which he had descended when he died on the Cross. He was already there and the Icon shows that he trampled on death, and with his victory over Satan and death he raised with his own Resurrection all those of the Old Testament who wanted to be saved. This is symbolically represented by Christ lifting Adam and Eve from their tombs who represent the whole of humanity. The Icon shows the moment before the actual Resurrection, but also shows the salvation of the Old Testament figures. There can be no salvation without the Resurrection so justifiably the Icon is also known as the Icon of the Resurrection and in many places it has the inscription “The Resurrection”. In our times the Icon of the “Descent into Hades” has taken precedence over other representations as the Icon most suitable for the Feast of the Resurrection possibly because it shows Christ in the centre clothed in garments of glory radiant with the light of his Resurrection which fills with light the abyss of hell.

In general the Icon depicts the teaching of the Church for iconography is a liturgical art, having the same spiritual depth and character as the liturgical hymns. The liturgical hymns also depict the Resurrection before the actual event. From the Service of the Epitaphios (Mattins of Great Saturday) we hear towards the end of the service the Resurrection hymn (Tone 2)   

“ Ότε κατήλθες προς τον θάνατον,  η ζωή  η αθάνατος,  τότε τον άδην ενέκρωσας, τη αστραπή της θεότητος, ότε δε και τους τεθνεώτας,  εκ των καταχθόνιων ανέστησας, πάσαι αι δυνάμεις των επουρανίων εκραύγαζον Ζωοδότα Χριστέ, ο Θεός ημών, δόξα σοι.”

“When Thou didst descend toward death, O Life Everlasting, Then Thou didst shatter Hades with the light of Thy Divinity. And when Thou didst raise the dead from that infernal place, All the heavenly powers cried unto Thee, O Christ our God, the giver of life, glory to Thee.”

The Great Saturday morning service (Vespers of the Resurrection) is basically the usual Sunday Resurrection service (Tone 1) with added readings. Thus the Church Hymns proclaims the Resurrection from the moment of Christ’s descent into Hades and in accordance with the hymns; the Icon, having the same character as the hymns, does the same. This more than justifies its inscription “The Resurrection”.  

But read also what two great men of our times have to say on the subject. Below is an explanation of the Icon “Descent into Hades” taken from the book “The Meaning of Icons” by Leonid Ouspensky – a renowned Russian Icon painter who did for Iconography in the West what Kontoglou did in the East, and Vladimir Lossky – a well known and respected Theologian of our times.   


“Christian iconography knows several representations of the Resurrection of Christ. In early Christian times it used the Old Testament prefiguration of the event, namely, the Prophet Jonah coming out of the whale’s belly.  However, even in very early days, there appears the historical representation of the Resurrection of Christ, based on the Gospel story—the appearance of the angel to the women bringing spices to the sepulchre. According to certain data, it existed already in the 3rd century (the Church in Dura Europos, 232). The iconographic type concerning the Resurrection of Christ that comes next in time is the Descent into Hell. The earliest known representation of this, belongs to the 6th century, and is to be found on one of the ciborium columns of St. Mark’s in Venice. These two latter compositions are used in the Orthodox Church as the Easter icons. In traditional Orthodox iconography the actual moment of the Resurrection of Christ was never depicted. Unlike their treatment of the Raising of Lazarus, both the Gospels and the Church Tradition are silent about that moment and do not say how Christ arose. Neither does the icon show it.

This silence clearly expresses the difference which exists between the two events. The raising of Lazarus was a miracle, which could be perceived by all; whereas the Resurrection of Christ was inaccessible to any perception. In the 6th Canticle of the Easter canon the Church draws a definite parallel between the Resurrection of Christ and His 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.” Just like His birth from the Virgin, the Resurrection of Christ is here glorified as an ineffable mystery, inaccessible to all inquiry. “Not only was the stone not removed from the sepulchre, but the seals on it were left intact when Christ arose and ‘life shone forth from the tomb’ while yet the ‘tomb was sealed’. The resurrected Christ came forth from the tomb just as He came in to the Apostles - through ‘shut doors’, which He did not open; He came out of the tomb with no outer signs that a bystander could observe.” The unfathomable character of this event for the human mind, and the consequent impossibility of depicting it, is the reason for the absence of icons of the Resurrection itself. This is why in Orthodox iconography there are, as we have said, two images corresponding to the meaning of this event and supplementing one another. One is a conventionally symbolical representation. It depicts the moment preceding the Resurrection of Christ in the flesh - the Descent into Hell; the other - the moment following the Resurrection of the body of Christ, the historical visit of the spice-bearers to Christ’s sepulchre.



In the teaching of the Church, the Descent into Hell is indissolubly connected with the Redemption. Since Adam was dead, the abasement of the Saviour, Who had assumed his nature, had to reach the same depths to which Adam had descended. In other words, the descent into hell represents the very limit of Christ’s degradation and, at the same time, the beginning of His glory. Although the Evangelists say nothing of this mysterious event, Apostle Peter speaks of it, both in his Divinely - inspired words on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2: 14-39), and in the third chapter of his first Epistle (1 Peter 3:19), “He went and preached unto the spirits in prison”. Christ’s victory over hell, the deliverance of Adam and of the righteous men of the Old Testament is the main theme of the Divine Service of Great Saturday; it runs through all the Easter service and is inseparable from the glorification of Christ’s Resurrection in the flesh. This theme is, as it were, interwoven with the theme of Resurrection. “Thou hast descended into the abyss of the earth, O Christ, and hast broken down the eternal doors which imprison those who are bound, and, like Jonah after three days inside the whale, Thou hast risen from the tomb.”

 Following the texts of divine services, the icon of the Descent into Hell expresses the spiritual, transcendental reality of the Resurrection - the descent of our Lord’s soul into hell - and reveals the purpose and results of this descent. In harmony with the meaning of the event, the action in the icon takes place in the very depths of the earth, in hell, shown as a gaping black abyss. In the centre of the icon, standing out sharply by His posture and colours, is the Saviour. The author of the Easter canon, St. John of Damascus, says “Although Christ died as a man and His holy soul departed from His pure body, His Divinity remained inseparable from both - I mean both soul and body.” Therefore He appears in hell not as its captive, but as its Conqueror, the Deliverer of those imprisoned therein; not as a slave but as the Master of life. He is depicted in the icon with a radiant halo, symbol of glory, usually of various shades of blue, and often spangled with stars round the outer edge and pierced with rays issuing from Him. His garments are no longer those in which He is portrayed during His service on earth. They are of a golden-yellow hue, made luminous throughout by thin golden rays (“assiste”) painted upon them. The darkness of hell is filled by the light of these Divine rays - the light of glory of Him Who being God-Man, descended therein. It is already the light of the coming Resurrection, the rays and dawn of the coming Easter. The Saviour tramples underfoot the two crossed leaves of hell’s doors, that He has pulled down. On many icons, below the doors, in the black abyss, is seen the repellent, cast down figure of the prince of darkness. Satan. In later icons are seen here also a number of varied details: - the power of hell destroyed - broken chains with which angels are now binding Satan, keys, nails and so forth. In His left hand Christ holds a scroll - symbol of the preaching of the Resurrection in hell, in accordance with the words of Apostle Peter. Sometimes, instead of the scroll He holds a cross, no longer the shameful instrument of punishment, but the symbol of victory over death. Having torn asunder the bonds of hell by His omnipotence, with His right hand Christ raises Adam from the grave (following Adam, our ancestress Eve rises with hands joined in prayer); that is, He frees Adam’s soul and with it the souls of all those who wait for His coming with faith. This is why, to right and left of this scene, are shown two groups of Old Testament saints, with prophets at their head. On the left are King David and King Solomon in royal robes and crowns, and behind them John the Forerunner; on the right - Moses with the tablets of the Law in his hand. Seeing the Saviour descended into hell, they at once recognise Him and are pointing out to others Him of Whom they had prophesied and Whose coming they had foretold.

The descent into hell was the last step made by Christ on the way of His abasement. By the very fact of “descending into the abyss of the earth” He opened to us the access to heaven. By freeing the old Adam, and with him the whole of mankind from slavery to him who is the incarnation of sin, darkness and death, He laid the foundation of a new life for those who have united with Christ into a new reborn mankind. Thus the spiritual raising of Adam is represented in the icon of the Descent into Hell as a symbol of the coming resurrection of the body, the first-fruit of which was the Resurrection of Christ. Therefore, although this icon expresses the meaning of the event commemorated on Great Saturday and is brought out for worship on that day, it is, and is called, an Easter icon, as a prefiguration of the coming celebration of the Resurrection of Christ and therefore of the future resurrection of the dead.


Yours in Christ
Fr. Christopher