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The Harrowing of Hell (Part II)


As noted yesterday, in order to keep this blog post within manageable (and readable) limits, I'm continuing the discussion of the icon of the Harrowing of Hell again today and tomorrow.


The Risen Savior

Jesus's garments are white, prefigured in the dazzlingly white garments described in his transfiguration on Mount Tabor ((Mt 17:1–8, Mk 9:2–8, Lk 9:28–36) and are echoed in the white garments worn by the newly baptized as well as paschal vestments of bishops, priests and deacons.


Behind him is a mandorla , (which can be round or as in this icon, oval shaped.) A feature of the medieval Christian art of both the Eastern and Western churches, in Byzantine iconography the mandorla signifies an event that transcends time and space and which can only be apprehended in faith.


As noted yesterday, Jesus is striding across the personification of the devil bound in chains, echoing this New Testament scripture passage: "He must reign until He puts all His enemies beneath His feet" (1 Cor 15:25). The representation of the devil follows the example of the best Russian icons, in which evil and unclean spirits appear no more substantial than a dirty, grayish smoke, echoing the words of the Psalmist: "But the wicked will perish - they will vanish, vanish like smoke" (Ps.37:20a,c)


Although the devil is depicted as continuing to gnash his teeth in hatred and claw at the figure of Adam, his neck is pinned down by the Cross wielded by Jesus and he is powerless to prevent Jesus from delivering the righteous of the Old and New Testaments (and their descendants) from death's domain.


Beneath the shattered gates of the underworld is the abyss of Sheol. But as a sign of humanity's deliverance from the power of sin and death, the pit is filled broken locks, chains and fetters, symbolizing everything that enslaves men and women and holds them in bondage in body and soul has been decisively overthrown in Christ.


Tomorrow we'll take a closer look at the holy men and women who stand on either side of Jesus.


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