The Resurrection Icon, or the Harrowing of Hades

The Resurrection Icon, or the Harrowing of Hades

The Christian scene of Christ’s descending into Hades (Hell), also known as the Harrowing of Hades, is frequently used to depict the important event of the Resurrection of the Savior. Moreover, religious art on the subject constitutes an integral part of the Orthodox tradition. It is aimed at the symbolic revelation of the mystery of Christ’s Resurrection. The rootedness of this scene in Orthodoxy caused the Resurrection icon to become an obligatory element of church decoration. So let’s take a closer look at this religious image and its meaning.

Key features of the Resurrection icon

The iconography of the Harrowing of Hades was completely formed in the 10th – 11th century. Today, there are many variations of the Resurrection icons, but all of them share common features.

Traditionally, the centerpiece of the icon depicts Jesus Christ who is breaking down the gates of hell. He is enclosed in a glowing mandorla as a symbol of uncreated light illuminating the dark abyss of Hades. By the feet of Christ, one can see the wreckage from the hell gates and a chained dark figure of Satan. The figures on either side of Christ are Adam and Eve, who have been brought by Jesus out of hell to be taken to heaven. The Savior holds them by the hands to accomplish their redemption.

The Resurrection icon also features the Old Testament prophets, kings, and other righteous people. King Solomon, David, and John the Baptist usually appear to the left, while the prophets and saints are shown to the right.

In the icons of this type, Hades itself is pictured as a fault in the ground, with the dark abyss of the underworld lurking behind. To demonstrate the divine power of Christ descending into hell, the background in such icons is often painted black.

The Harrowing of Hades scene and its meaning

In Christianity, the descent into hell completed the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ and marked the beginning of His glory at the same time. Therefore, this motif is also manifested in the Resurrection icon. It is important to understand that this composition is not an exact description of the actual event, but rather a symbol revealing its deep meaning.

The Resurrection icon is a highly revered image in the Orthodox Christian tradition, which assists the faithful in experiencing the Gospel truth.