The image below is a wall painting from the Khora Church complex in Istanbul (Kariye Camii), and dates from the 14th century. It depicts the most important event in the Eastern Orthodox Church year, the Resurrection. It will look strange to most Americans or Western Europeans, because the iconic form of the Resurrection originally preferred in Eastern Orthodoxy was actually the event known in the West as the “Descent into Hell” or more colorfully, “The Harrowing of Hell.”
The Khora fresco is painted in the “Byzantine” or Greek manner, not surprisingly, given that the church complex is in what was once Constantinople. But I want to concentrate more on its textual origins and iconography.
Where did such an image of Resurrection originate? Well, it is very loosely based on lines from the New Testament book called I Peter, Chapter 3, verses 18-20 (no one really knows who wrote I Peter, or precisely when):
18 For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
20 Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.
That is certainly vague enough. To find a more detailed origin of the Resurrection iconography however, we must look to a later apocryphal work (what we would call today a “forgery”) the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus, from the 4th Century (during which, you may recall, the Christian Church came under Roman State sponsorship/control). I will append some segments of it pertinent to the Resurrection icon at the end of this article.
But now, let’s look at the fresco image:
It is set in a stylized cavern, the depths of Hades under mountains, in which the “righteous” men and women of the Old Testament have been kept in prison by Satan, the Prince of Hades, and assorted devils. At the top of the image we see its title in Greek, H ANACTACIC (Η ΑΝΑΣΤΑΣΙΣ). ” He Anastasis” means “The Resurrection.” We also see the standard IC XC abbreviation for Iesous Khristos, “Jesus Christ.” Jesus stands in an almond shaped “glory” of light; such a “glory” is usually called a “mandorla” from the Italian word for “almond.” He grasps the “first man” Adam with his right hand, and “first woman” Eve with his left, pulling them out of their sarcophagus-like prisons.
At the feet of Jesus we see the broken gates of Hades (“Hell”), as well as enough broken locks, bolts, and bars to stock a small hardware shop. That is all to tell us that Jesus has broken into the prison of Hades, and is letting the prisoners out. Various other Old Testament figures are seen to right and left, including (at left) Kings David and Solomon and John the Forerunner (Baptist). Foremost among those on the right is Abel, son of Adam and Eve, holding his shepherd’s staff.
So that is the Greek manner. But what about Russian icons? Well, the medieval Russian versions of the Resurrection, called in Slavic Voskresenie, were generally very similar to the Greek form, though painted with a bit more simplicity.
That all changed, however, in later Russian icon painting. By the time we get to the 18th and 19th centuries, the Resurrection had become far more elaborate, depicting even more of the detail from the Gospel of Nicodemus. Here is a 19th century Russian version:
This image is very typical of later Russian icons of the Resurrection. At the bottom is an elaborated version of the “old” image, with Christ standing on the gates of Hades and grasping Adam by the hand, as Eve and other Old Testament women kneel before him. John the Forerunner and King David are already in the crowd that is moving up toward Paradise in a long line. The huge mouth in which Eve kneels shows the manner in which the “Jaws of Hell/Hades” were depicted at that time, like a great monster with his mouth open.
At the top of the line going to Paradise is the Repentant Thief Rakh, holding his cross that will guarantee him admission if he is questioned, because Jesus himself had promised him “Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” At upper right we see Rakh after he has been let through the doors of Paradise, being welcomed by Enoch and Elijah, the only Old Testament figures allowed in Paradise previously.
Now obviously the notion of the “Descent to Hades” given in the Gospel of Nicodemus and represented in Greek and Russian iconography goes far beyond limiting the “spirits in prison” to those from the “days of Noah,” as they are described in I Peter.
The main upper image, however, is a more European depiction of the Resurrection of Christ that was adopted into later Russian iconography. It shows Jesus standing above his empty tomb. To the left is a related scene of Peter in Christ’s tomb, looking at the empty linen wrappings. Below Peter, a separate scene shows an angel binding the Prince of Hell/Hades. At lower right is a post-resurrection scene of Jesus appearing to the disciples who were fishing on the Sea of Tiberias, as recorded in the Gospel of John.
Of course all of this, in its thinking and imagery, is very “pre-Darwin.” The people who developed this iconography did not know the questionable sources of the texts they used, nor did they know that the world was far more than a few thousand years old, and that there never was an Adam and Eve as depicted in those texts and in the icons. Actually, if one thinks about it, the scientific knowledge of evolution quite destroys the whole traditional notion of the Fall of Adam and the need for a redemptive sacrifice. But icons are not from the world of science, they are from the world of imagination and belief, and in pre-scientific times they gave people an explanation for why things were the way things were; not a scientifically accurate or defendable explanation, but those were the times.
Looking at such icons, then, is not so much a “window into Heaven” as the saying goes, as it is a window into pre-scientific thinking and culture.
For those who have not yet had enough, here are some pertinent excerpts from the Gospel of Nicodemus.)
AND while Satan and the prince of hell were discoursing thus to each other, on a sudden there was a voice as of thunder and the rushing of winds, saying, 2 Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be ye lift up, O everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall come in.
4 And the prince said to his impious officers, Shut the brass gates of cruelty, and make them fast with iron bars, and fight courageously, lest we be taken captives.
7 And the divine prophet David, cried out saying, 3 Did not I when on earth truly prophesy and say, O that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men.
8 For he hath broken the gates of brass, and cut the bars of iron in sunder. He hath taken them because of their iniquity, and because of their unrighteousness they are afflicted.
18 While David was saying this, the mighty Lord appeared in the form of a man, and enlightened those places which had ever before been in darkness,
19 And broke asunder the fetters which before could not be broken; and with his invincible power visited those who sate in the deep darkness by iniquity, and the shadow of death by sin. 3
13 Then the King of Glory trampling upon death, seized the prince of hell, deprived him of all his power, and took our earthly father Adam with him to his glory.
3 For behold now that Jesus of Nazareth, with the brightness of his glorious divinity, puts to flight all the horrid powers of darkness and death;
4 He has broke down our prisons from top to bottom, dismissed all the captives, released all who were bound, and all who were wont formerly to groan under the weight of their torments have now insulted us, and we are like to be defeated by their prayers.
THEN Jesus stretched forth his hand, and said, Come to me, all ye my saints, who were created in my image, who were condemned by the tree of forbidden fruit, and by the devil and death;
2 Live now by the wood of my cross; the devil, the prince of this world, is overcome, and death is conquered.
3 Then presently all the saints were joined together under the hand of the most high God; and the Lord Jesus laid hold on Adam’s hand and said to him, Peace be to thee, and all thy righteous posterity, which is mine.
12 And taking hold of Adam by his right hand, he ascended from hell, and all the saints of God followed him.
THEN the Lord holding Adam by the hand, delivered him to Michael the archangel; and he led them into Paradise, filled with mercy and glory;
2 And two very ancient men met them, and were asked by the saints, Who are ye, who have not yet been with us in hell, and have had your bodies placed in Paradise?
3 One of them answering, said, I am Enoch, who was translated by the word of God: 5 and this man who is with me, is Elijah the Tishbite, who was translated in a fiery chariot. 6
5 ¶ And while the holy Enoch and Elias were relating this, behold there came another man in a miserable figure carrying the sign of the cross upon his shoulders.
6 And when all the saints saw him, they said to him, Who art thou? For thy countenance is like a thief’s; and why dost thou carry a cross upon thy shoulders?
7 To which he answering, said, Ye say right, for I was a thief who committed all sorts of wickedness upon earth.
8 And the Jews crucified me with Jesus; and I observed the surprising things which happened
in the creation at the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus.
9 And I believed him to be the Creator of all things, and the Almighty King; and I prayed to him, saying, Lord, remember me, when thou comest into thy kingdom.
10 He presently regarded my supplication, and said to me, Verily I say unto thee, this day thou shalt be with me in Paradise. 1
11 And he gave me this sign of the cross saying, Carry this, and go to Paradise; and if the angel who is the guard of Paradise will not admit thee, shew him the sign of the cross, and say unto him: Jesus Christ who is now crucified, hath sent me hither to thee.
12 When I did this, and told the angel who is the guard of Paradise all these things, and he heard them, he presently opened the gates, introduced me, and placed me on the right-hand in Paradise,
13 Saying, Stay here a little time, till Adam, the father of all mankind, shall enter in, with all his sons, who are the holy and righteous servants of Jesus Christ, who was crucified.
14 When they heard all this account from the thief, all the patriarchs said with one voice, Blessed be thou, O Almighty God, the Father of everlasting goodness, and the Father of mercies, who hast shewn such favour to those who were sinners against him, and hast brought them to the mercy of Paradise, and hast placed them amidst thy large and spiritual provisions, in a spiritual and holy life. Amen.