There are two icons in Byzantine and Orthodox churches associated with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Neither icon represents the actual Resurrection event, which cannot be represented, but rather events that occurred along with the Resurrection.
One icon is the “Descent into Hades” (pictured here) and the other (not shown) is the “Icon of the Myrrh Bearing Women”.
Since the Descent into Hades icon is so closely associated with Pascha (the name for Easter in Eastern churches), it is equally referred to as the Icon of the Resurrection.
As you look at the icon, it is easy to see why. Jesus Christ is depicted in His Glorified Body, resplendently clothed in gold garments (in contrast to the red/blue garments normally seen in icons of Christ). The Greek abbreviation of “IC XC” identifies this figure as Jesus Christ.
The magnificent radiance of Christ’s Divinity and Glory is represented by the rays of light emanating from his figure. This brilliance is also expressed in the almond-shaped mandorla that symbolizes the incomprehensible qualities of Christ’s Divine nature. No one can ever represent in any art form the intensity of Divine Light that is God. (see footnote1)
Upon looking again at this icon, we see Christ holds a small scroll in his left hand, representing the good news of salvation, and with his right hand, Christ is pulling a figure out of an abyss. This abyss is called Hades (Greek) or Sheol (Hebrew) which is the place of the deceased, not solely the place of the condemned, but the place also where the prophets and saints of the Old Testament awaited their just reward. The main figure being “freed” is Adam, and next to him is Eve. Adam and Eve, our first parents are the sources of our human condition and frailties for which Christ’s act of redemption for all humanity is necessary.
Christ freeing Adam and Eve out of Hades depicted in this icon can be seen as a visual metaphor for the mercy that God offers to all people, to all sinners who in genuine repentance and humility are lifted up out of darkness. Christ pulling up Adam is symbolic of our own dependence upon God, of our reliance on Him for everything, especially our salvation. We have no strength to “free” ourselves by our own means, but rather we need God’s helping hand. The source of our strength is always with God. God offers us hope and never fails to love us, no matter how long we may remain estranged from Him or fail in our weaknesses, even when we have fallen in as much as Adam and Eve.
This is the “story” written into this icon. It is the story central to all Christian belief. Christ is victorious over death, death that is both physical and spiritual. When we celebrate Pascha in Eastern churches, we sing repeatedly: “Christ is risen from the dead, by death he trampled (conquered) death, and to those in the tombs (graves) he granted life!”
The darkness of those tombs is symbolized in the icon with the depiction of crypts; and with a colorless human form bound up (devoid of life). Seen also are the symbols of the burden of sin and its imprisonment on souls … locks, nails, chains, and keys.
The icon and the words we sing during Pascha illustrate distinctively how the prophesized Messiah — Our Lord and Savior Christ Jesus – restored to life and unchained the holy souls of the Old Testament world, suspended and waiting in immeasurable time. For a description of this, refer to the footnote.2
The icon displays the gates of Hades opened but now in the form of a cross. In some icons of this type, you may actually see Christ dramatically straddling the gates, his feet solidly trampling on them. No one can look at this icon and not have an appreciation of the mighty power of God.
During the Resurrection Matins Services of Eastern churches, the priest represents this same action of Christ opening the gates (sealed doors to the church), pounding on the gates/doors in a final gesture of triumph over darkness as all proclaim “Christ is Risen … “ This is another example of the richness of tradition in Eastern churches. Symbols are incorporated to such a degree there is an integral harmony to all aspects of faith and worship, all of which is founded on sacred Scripture, wisdom of the saints and early disciples, and beliefs established by the Ecumenical Councils.
Throughout the sacred texts of the Old Testament the promises of a Messiah were foreshadowed. These promises are fulfilled through Jesus Christ, etched unquestionably in a historic moment in time, forming the content of the New Testament. The Descent into Hades or Resurrection Icon so effectively puts to form the high point of this salvation history.
The continuity of Old to New Testament is seen in the selection of the figures on the left. Those 3 figures are: King David, King Solomon, and John the Baptist. The figures on the right behind Adam and Eve may represent either other prophets or any of those who have placed their hope in the prophecies of the Old Testament.
The icon of the Descent into Hades might even be viewed as an icon of reconciliation, mercy, and icon of promise. It is an icon of God’s infinite plan, a plan that is timeless in both its completion and final Judgement yet to come. As we look at it, we can feel consolation that our hope is with Our Lord who loves us always.
For more information on the creation of the iconography and ecclesiastical art (iconography credits) in St. Michael the Archangel Church, Pittston – refer to the section on church restoration work in the 1990s: History of St. Michael’s page (click here)
1Iconography makes use of ordered symbolic elements. It does not attempt realistic portrayal because the inherent spiritual nature of icons is in symbolizing the intangible. Icons do not attempt to humanize what they represent. The whole intent of icons is to draw the viewer closer towards holiness and to the mystery of all that is God. When we venerate icons, we show respect to the figure or acknowledge the event in the icon. When we pray before an icon, we draw ourselves closer in mindfulness to the spiritual presence and reality of the figure in the icon or the event.
2 ( 633) Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell”—Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek— because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. (480) Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: (481) “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” (482) Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him. (483)
(635) Christ went down into the depths of death so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” (485) Jesus, “the Author of life,” by dying destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” (486) Henceforth the risen Christ holds “the keys of Death and Hades,” so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” (487) (footnote ² source from: usccb online version: Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2016 second edition)