Christ’s Descent into Hades – icon explanation

This is one of my favorite Eastern Orthodox icons.  It is referred to as Christ’s Descent into HadesAnastasis or Resurrection Icon.  It is the primary icon of Pascha (Easter).

Some key features:

  • Christ’s cape/robe is flowing upward, this symbolizes his radical descent into Hades to save those who have died in the flesh.
  • The golden bars by his feet are the gates of Hades, which he has broken and torn apart.  There are keys floating in the abyss below, which symbolizes that he has entered and conquered both death and Hades.
  • You may also note the skeletal figure who is chained up: that is Death and/or Satan.  He has been bound and killed by Christ, which is why all throughout Pascha we sing “Christ has trampled down death by death.”  The icon depicts Hebrews 2:14, “that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil.”  The power of the devil and death have been destroyed through the life-giving death of our Savior.
  • The two figures whom Christ has grasped and is pulling from tombs are Adam and Eve, symbolizing that his victory redeems all mankind, even back to the beginning.  It also foreshadows the general resurrection of the body before the Final Judgment.
  • To the left, we see three characters:  David and Solomon, two of his ancestors according to his fleshly nature.  We also see, closest to him, John the Baptizer, who was his forerunner in both life and death.
  • The figures on the right vary from icon to icon.  Initially, I was told that they generic representatives for those who are presently alive, but after further research I have discovered that all of the characters (on the left and right) are Old Testament prophets and saints.  Moses is usually depicted on the right as well as other prophets.  Additionally, there are the three youth who went into the fiery furnace and a shepherd, the latter of which may depict the ones who first venerated our Lord at His birth.
  • The blue shape around Christ is called the Mandorla (which is Italian for almond, which describes its shape).  The Mandorla is the uncreated, eternal light of Christ.  In the writings of the Eastern Orthodox mystics, God is often prayerfully experienced as light.  This is not simply a pretty bright light.  It is the same light which filled the apostles with wonder when they witnessed His Transfiguration.  It is the light which Christ Himself described as the power of the Kingdom of God (Mark 9:1 Matt 16:28 Luke 9:27).  It is the light that filled the once perpetual darkness of Hades when Christ descended and brought life into the realm of death.  It is also the light that is seen when one purifies their heart and mind (Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.)
  • The Mandorla becomes progressively darker as it moves toward its center, which is Christ.  If God is represented by light, the Mandorla may seem confusing.  However, those who seek God will find that the more they know Him, the less they comprehend Him.  To know God, to experience Him, is to walk in the darkness of His light, to enter into the mystery of His presence.

One of the key things to remember is that icons are not meant to be “photo recordings” of what happened.  These are symbolic tools that assists us in  comprehension of the gospel truth through our sense of sight.

For further reading on the intriguing ancient account from which this icon is taken, check out The Harrowing of Hades.

If you have anything to add, please feel free to do so in the comments below.  Also, I’ve been asked by many people where they can obtain copies of the two icons in this blog.  Unfortunately, I don’t know.  However, here are two stores that sell several variations of the Resurrection Icon: Damascene Gallery and Uncut Mountain Supply.

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Growing up in non-denominational churches, I became weary of many practices in the church. I decided it was time to find a church that enabled me to grow in my faith and talents, but that was also theologically deep. I was drawn to the Eastern Orthodox Church for several reasons. Check out my blog which details my journey into this ancient faith.

33 thoughts on “Christ’s Descent into Hades – icon explanation”

  1. Who are all the saints on His right & left in this rendering of Christ’s Descent into Hell?
    Is Nicodemus depicted ?

    1. Good questions, Linda. I have two different versions of this icon on this blog. The top one contains fewer characters than the one on the bottom.

      Starting with the icon on top: to the left we see saints who passed away before Christ’s crucifixion including David, Solomon, and John the Baptist. Essentially, that side represents the Old Covenant (Old Testament). To the right of the icon are people who represent folks from various walks of life. To my knowledge (which is fairly limited) there is no effort to depict a particular person. It represents those who are and who are to come whom Christ brings out of Hades/Sheol. This is the New or Present Covenant group.

      The icon on the bottom is similar, except to the left (Christ’s right) we see quite a few more Old Covenant characters (kings, prophets, priests, etc). And to the right, we again see more New Covenant people.

      Both show Adam and Eve being pulled from their graves, which signifies the redemption of all mankind back to the beginning. I hope that helps!

  2. Thank you for your response but I am yearning for a more specific id…re: lower Icon…Is Moses depicted with the scroll/Law & Samuel with the shofar perhaps..OR is Moses w/ the shofar…(like a depicting of the call to prayer: Sh’ma…”Hear O Israel…”)? Who is the young man behind Adam? Could THAT be David & behind him Solomon with the brown beard? OR is Solomon gray bearded, & SAUL (brown bearded),behind the youthful David, next to John the Baptist? & on the right….where to begin? The 3 youths w/ Hebrew head covering…could they be the 3 youths in Daniel…Shadrach, Mishach & Abednigo? & the young man holding a shepherd’s staff in front?? Who ‘wrote’ this particular Icon? This Icon has such wondrous, liberating, unifying Scriptural Truths on ‘Salvation’ which, if being consistent w/ the Apostolic Faith… ‘the writer’ portrayed deliberately, it seems, with specific Biblical characters in mind….Maybe I’m asking too much detail but I can’t help but sense the power of such an ’emotional word/picture’ in its expansiveness, such as this, to transform minds & hearts who have difficulty understanding the breadth of God’s Love in Christ…Thank you for your time…

    1. Very good questions, Linda. You’ve probably given more thought to the other characters than I have, and you can certainly pull a great bit of beauty and meaning out of doing so. What I do know from seeing other icons is that behind Adam, the young king is Solomon, the old king with the scroll is David, and the bearded fellow is John the Baptist. I don’t know who the bearded king is though. It could represent a godly king such as Hezekiah.

      I think you are probably right about the three youths on the right. I wish I knew who wrote/painted it as well. There is certainly a great deal of thought and meaning that went into it.

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    1. Not sure who the artist is for either image, Jim. I wish I knew. I’ve seen both of them depicted in churches (especially the top one); they are traditional images, but the artists who rendered the electronic versions are unknown to me.

  4. Christ is Risen!
    I read on two sites that the young boy behind Adam is Abel, the first to suffer injustice as the consequence of sin. Also, Moses is shown wearing a Phrygian cap representing the first covenant and witnessing the first Passover.

  5. “To know God, to experience Him, is to walk in the darkness of His light, to enter into the mystery of His presence.” Beautiful. Thanks for that!

      1. I have not been able to find this particular icon, does anyone know where I could find the top icon? I would really appreciate any help. Thanks!

  6. I guess that the Greek words in the upper icon, above are ” h anatasis” = the risen, and the letters on either side are the abbreviations for Jesus and Christ?

  7. Around Christ’s head is a halo, an almost universal symbol of holiness. But Christ’s halo is not the same as the halos shown around other saints, nor even in the angels of this icon. Inside of Christ’s halo is the Cross – the Cross of Salvation – although only three arms are visible: the three arms make up a Holy Trinity. Upon the three arms are the Greek letters ώ Ό Ν (omega, omicron, nu) which literally means “the being” or more precisely “He who is”. This is a reference to Christ’s divinity, as the Old Testament reveals “He who is” to be the name God revealed to Moses (Ex. 3:14 – in the Septuagint text this is ἐγώ εἰμί ὁ ὢν: “I am He Who is”). The Revelation of St. John uses the phrase: “Who is (ὁ ὢν), Who was, and Who is coming” throughout to refer to Jesus Christ. These revelations of Jesus Christ’s nature and the Holy Trinity are preserved in Christ’s Halo.

    1. Thank you, Oren, for posting your research here on Christ’s halo for others to see. Those details should be universal in just about any correctly rendered Eastern Orthodox icon of Christ.

    1. I believe you are correct, Harold. One person mentioned in a comment above that that the young man behind Adam is Abel, but I think they meant to write behind Eve. The young man behind Adam is Solomon, I believe. The crown on his head is a big clue to that.

  8. Blessed Easter greetings! I wonder if there is any meaning in the fact that it’s Adam’s left arm which Christ grabs and not his right arm. Since letf and right can have different meanings, for instance the left arm is closest to the heart and is considered also as having more to do with emotion.

    1. Maartendas, the hands and arms oftentimes do carry special meaning in icons. I don’t have an official answer for you, but here is my guess, which carries no spiritual significance but is rather practical (so don’t place too much weight on it).

      Adam is purposely pictured on Christ’s right hand, whereas Eve is on his left (their positions have to do with Christ’s placement since all revolves around Him). Christ is grabbing Adam’s left arm and Eve’s right arm. From the perspective of looking at the icon, if he had been grabbing Adam’s right arm, that would force Adam to be turned so we would be seeing his side or his back. I have heard that a rotated posture is not appropriate for saints depicted in icons. They could not stick him in the background so that he would be reaching forward to Christ with his right hand since there are other people in the background.

      So in short, I think they depict Adam being grasped by his left arm in order to keep him facing us so that we’re not looking at his backside.

  9. As an Orthodox Christian, I am particularly drawn to our beautiful and meticulously symbolic icons. The top icon of the Resurrection I am most familiar with. One of the small details of this icon, (as explained to me by my Priest) is the purposeful placement of our Lord’s grasp to Adam and Eve. Notice that He is holding their respective arms immediately above the wrist. This placement is a hold of strength (getting a good grip, if you will) as opposed to simply grabbing their hand (which isn’t as strong of a hold). It is also an indication of ownership in reclaiming them into His Kingdom. 🙂

  10. Hi! I’m doing a research project on icons, and I found this article super helpful. Could you point me to some of the specific sources you used for you exegesis/explanation of the icon that I could use for further information? I’d really appreciate it!

    1. Hi Victoria, I apologize for taking a few days to reply to your question. Unfortunately, I didn’t save my sources back when I originally wrote this blog several years ago. A book that I have used recently when revising this article is “The Meaning of Icons” by Vladimir Lossky and Leonid Ouspensky. Aside from that, I just researched several websites such as the Greek and Antiochian Archdiocese websites. Sorry I can’t give anything more specific than that!

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