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The Harrowing of Hell

During the Octave of Easter I thought I'd post Easter icons which I've written (painted) over the years and write a bit about them.

This icon, in egg tempera from 2011, was the centerpiece of a book project for The Liturgical Press, "The Illuminated Easter Proclamation", which illustrates the Exsultet, an ancient prayer which is chanted once a year at the Easter Vigil in the Roman rite to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus.

This icon depicts the harrowing of hell, when in the witness of the First Letter of Peter, "In the body [Jesus] was put to death, in the spirit he was raised to life, and in the spirit he went to preach to the imprisoned spirits" (1 Pt 3:19) This "descent into hell" refers not to a place of eternal damnation and punishment but to Jesus's entry into Sheol, the shadowy abode of the dead spoken of repeatedly in the psalms and other places in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Although images of the harrowing of hell are found in the liturgical art of both the Eastern and the Western churches throughout the Middle Ages, it was most fully developed in the Christian East.

It illustrates almost exactly the Paschal troparion:

Christ is Risen from the dead!

Trampling down death by death!

And upon those in the tombs

Bestowing Life!

We can see this depicted in this icon. Jesus, brandishing the victorious weapon of the Cross, the Tree of Life, tramples on doors of the underworld, torn off their hinges and upon the personification of ancient enemy who held humanity in bondage to sin and death (and is himself forever bound and consigned to the Pit).

With his other hand, Jesus, the Second Adam takes the hand of the First Adam emerging from a sarcophagus and accompanied by Eve, the Mother of all the living, undoing their offense of turning away from God the source of Life and beatitude.

The depiction of Jesus delivering our first parents from the power of sin and death is the essential heart of the icon, but in this and many variations of the Harrowing of Hell, there are additional figures included from the Old and New Testaments.

We'll look at the iconography of Jesus, the devil and the underworld more closely in tomorrow's post.

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