18th-Century Russian Icon “The Resurrection – The Harrowing of Hades”

18th-Century Russian Icon “The Resurrection – The Harrowing of Hades”

When it comes to the history of a Russian icon, the most known iconographic school is Palekh. However, there is no exact date when Palekh icon painting arose. The traditions of the Suzdal school and Moscow icon painting of the 15th-16th centuries underlie this iconographic style. Palekh icon painting is dominated by smooth lines, delicate and harmonious colors, and strict and laconic multi-figure compositions.

Up to the end of the 16th century, the theme of “The Resurrection of Christ” was depicted in Russian icons only as “The Descent into Hell (The Harrowing of Hades).” The Psalters and the Epistles of the Apostle Peter formed the basis of this iconography. Also, the canon of the traditional Russian icon of the Harrowing of Hades was influenced by apocryphal works “The Gospel of Nicodemus” and “The Words of Eusebius of the Legend.” They figuratively narrate that after the crucified Christ had “given up His spirit,” He descended into the underworld to bring out Adam and Eve, the kings David and Solomon, and other prophets and forefathers whose original sin He atoned for by His death on the cross. This iconography is mainly influenced by the art of Byzantium. In Rus’, this composition has been known since the 11th century (frescoes of St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv). In the center of the composition, against the background of a bright radiant halo (glory) located between the tops of the hills, one can see Christ who is depicted standing over the black abyss of hell. The destroyed gates of hell, scattered locks, keys, and chains often appear under His feet. Christ is surrounded by the figures of the Old Testament righteous. Sometimes, hell is depicted in the form of Satan bound by the angels.

18th-century Russian icon “The Resurrection – The Harrowing of Hades”

In the given Russian icon, there are 16 border scenes. Among them are the Nativity of the Virgin, which opens the festive cycle of the liturgical year, and the Exaltation of the Cross of the Lord. The Old Testament Trinity is located in the center of the upper tier. The Trinity violates the liturgical and historical chronology, thus being turned into a symbol of Palekh iconography. Above the Old Testament Trinity, there is also the New Testament Trinity (Ascension to the Throne). This element is characteristic of Palekh icon painting.

This icon is distinguished by the master’s original and individual style of painting. All figures depicted in the icon are tall, elongated, and thin, with small round heads. The composition was created in a quite unique, lively manner, meaning that the icon was painted in a fairly early period of Palekh icon art.

Miniature details

In the composition, we see a multi-level translucent landscape, which is typical for Russian icon painting. The iconographer filled the icon with miniature ornamentation, elegant architectural motifs, numerous fabrics and draperies, and more. Despite the fact that each scene is no more than 3 cm high, the master included an incredible amount of small details in it. Let’s take, for example, the scene of the Beheading of John the Baptist, which includes the image of King Herod, and the Old Testament Trinity shown in the version of “Hospitality of Abraham,” with the depictions of Abraham and Sarah. This icon was painted with great skill, which indicates how incredible and strong the Palekh school of icon painting was.