Descent into the Underworld
(Russia; nineteenth century)
Central Russia; nineteenth century; 31.2 x 26.4 cm
Feast: Passover Sunday and the 40-day period after the feast
Theological background of the feast
Christ's resurrection is an incomprehensible mystery of God. As the myrrh-bearing women hurried to the Lord's tomb on the dawn of the first day of the week, they witnessed the earthquake and the appearance of an angel rolling a stone from the entrance to the tomb to show them that Christ was not there. The resurrection had already taken place. Not all evangelists agree on the moment of the resurrection, which is inaccessible to our human understanding. The icon does not therefore point to it either. There were voices in the Church, however, about how a feast or a saint, or any historical or biblical event, should be depicted on the icon. Not only did different opinions arise, but also various icons of Christ's resurrection, which led to questions about which icons of Christ's resurrection correctly express the meaning of the sacred event. Leonid Uspenskij stated his opinion as follows: “... Christ's Resurrection is an incomprehensible mystery and cannot be depicted, because in this way the very mysterious nature of the event would be diminished. The only appropriate depiction of Christ's Resurrection is the depiction of women bearing myrrh at the empty tomb of Christ.”
In accordance with the Gospel, there are only two iconographic compositions of the resurrection: “Descent into the Underworld” and “Women with the Myrrh at the Grave.” The feast of the Passover has no other icons. In the first centuries of Christianity, the mural paintings, especially in the Roman catacombs, depicted Christ's resurrection through Old Testament archetypes such as Jonah emerging from the whale, which is based on the words of the Saviour on the symbol of the prophet Jonah: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40) The scenes of three Hebrew youth in the fiery furnace, Daniel in the lion's den, or Noah saved from the flood in the ark were also well-known. All these early Christian scenes have a common denominator, to convey to believers the central idea of Passover, liberation from death and sin, and the hope of resurrection and eternal life for all people.
Christ's connection with Jonah is also stated in liturgical texts: “You have descended into the depths of the earth. You broke the eternal leaves that held the bound prisoners, Christ. And after three days, as Jonah of the whale, you gloriously rose from the tomb.” (Irmos of the sixth song of the Passover canon). Christ did not dwell in the tomb as defeated by death, but in order (as expressed by the icon of the feast) to become a glowing torch, to light the darkness of the underworld and save the righteous. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem writes that Christ became incarnated so that “even more grace could descend, and the sinful body became the poison of death, so that the serpent that seized it might cast out those who had been in his captivity since ancient times. Christ destroyed death forever.”
Description of the icon
A glowing Christ descending into the underworld is in the centre of the icon. He is like the radiant sun descending into the dark depths of death and the underworld. His entire figure is full of the dynamism of the Holy Spirit - He is shining with holy energy. The edge of his garment is carried away by the wind, which indicates that the Redeemer descended as quickly and suddenly as lightning. The figure of Christ is bound by a mandorla from the celestial spheres, strewn with celestial stars, filled with the radiance of Christ. He is clothed in light because light is an attribute of the glorified body and a symbol of divine glory. If we compare this icon with the icon of the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor, we will find a certain parallel between them. In both cases the colour of Christ's robe is bright white, supplemented, in some types of this depiction, by the golden lines of rays, the so-called assistos (ἄσειστος). Christ is clothed as King, He is Lord, but all His power lies in crucified love and the invincible power of the cross. He is standing on the broken leaves of the gates of hell and entering as the King of glory. “Lift up your heads, O you gates! And be lifted up, you everlasting doors! And the King of glory shall come in.” (Psalms 24:7) At the bottom we see torn chains, broken locks and keys which served evil to bind the multitudes. A number of broken fragments of iron, keys, nails and hinges symbolically depict the destroyed power of the underworld, the fragments of its evil rule.
With a powerful movement of his hand, Christ pulls Adam and Eve out of the underworld. He is holding the Grandparents at their wrists at the point where we feel the pulse. Adam also reaches out to Christ with his other hand, while Eve holds her head down, her eyes downcast, with her other hand covered with the hem of her garments as a sign of humility. A stunning meeting of the two Adams takes place, predicting the fullness of the kingdom. As Saint Ephraim of Syria writes, “He who said to Adam, 'Where are you?', went up to the cross to save the one who had been lost. He descended into the underworld and said, ‘Get up, my image and likeness’.”
A group of the depicted righteous to the left and right of Christ is a symbolic representation of all Christ-restored humanity. The righteous and prophets are there. Behind great-grandmother Eve, on Christ’s left, are Jesus' ancestors - Kings David and Solomon, who prophesied of his salvation. Opposite them, on Christ’s right, stands “the greatest that was born of a woman,” St. John the Baptist, who bears witness of Him with a gesture of his hand. Moses, often depicted with the tablets of the Ten Commandments, is behind him. A young man can be clearly seen next to Moses, on some icons with a shepherd's stick, in whom we can identify Abel, the son of Eve, who suffered an unjust death at the hands of his brother Cain. The scene is completed by other righteous people, all of whom recognize their Saviour, which they also indicate with their expressive gestures. The rocks on the right and left represent the spiritual path of man, his falls and risings, and are thus a symbol of the ultimate victory of spirit over matter. At the top of the icon, two angels in the centre are holding glorified instruments of Christ's Passion, a cross, a spear and the holy sponge.
The icon features Christ descending into the underworld and opening its gates wide. Now we can sing, “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). The kingdom of death was destroyed because it received the Living one. The true light descends, the Sun of righteousness, which illuminates “those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.” (Luke 1:79) “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed - in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” (1 Corinthians 15: 51-55)
The icon depicts in this way the entire process of salvation performed by the Lord. Christ frees Adam and Eve to restore the dignity of God's sons and daughters.