Iconographic Analysis: the Icon of Victory over Death

And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty
and your faith is also empty. (St. Paul the Apostle)

At the centre of the Christian faith is Jesus Christ and His Resurrection from the dead. As such, the Icon of the Resurrection is the most celebrated, the most common, the most cherished, the most instructive.

It is all of these things because the Orthodox Icon of the Resurrection is not content with simply showing us the Risen Christ, or the empty tomb; the Victory shown in the Icon of the Resurrection is complete.

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life! (Paschal Hymn)

Jesus Christ was not content with laying in the tomb for three days after His crucifixion. Instead, while His body was entombed, Christ’s soul descended into Hades, or Hell. Christ descended there not to suffer, but to fight, and free the souls trapped there. Just as bringing a light into darkness causes the darkness to disappear, the Source of all Life descending into the abode of the dead resulted in Jesus’ victory over death, and not death’s victory over Jesus. This is the full reality of what Christ’s death and resurrection accomplished.

In the Icon, Jesus Christ stands victoriously in the centre. Robed in Heavenly white, He is surrounded by a mandorla of star-studded light, representing the Glory of God. Christ is shown dramatically pulling Adam, the first man, from the tomb. Eve is to Christ’s left, hands held out in supplication, also waiting for Jesus to act. This humble surrender to Jesus is all Adam and Eve need to do, and all they are able to do. Christ does the rest, which is why He is pulling Adam from the tomb by the wrist, and not the hand.

Surrounding the victorious Christ are John the Baptist and the Old Testament Righteous (Abel is shown as the young shepherd-boy). Those who predeceased Christ’s crucifixion descended to Hades, where they patiently waited the coming of their Messiah. Now they are freed from this underworld, and mingle freely with Christ and His angels.

And what of this underworld, Hades? It is shown in the aftershock of Christ’s descent into its heart – in utter chaos.

This event, known as the Harrowing of Hades, was taught from the very beginning of the Church. St. Melito of Sardis (died ca 180) in Homily on the Passion; Tertullian in A Treatise on the Soul, 55, Hippolytus in Treatise on Christ and Anti-Christ , Origen in Against Celsus, 2:43, and, later, St. Ambrose (died 397) all wrote of the Harrowing of Hell.

“Harrow” comes from the Old English word used to describe the ploughing of a field with a cultivator which is dragged roughly over the ground, churning it up. In the icon, Christ is shown with the instrument of His death plunged deep into Hades. Beneath Christ’s feet – which still carry the marks of His crucifixion – lay the gates of Hades, smashed wide open. Often they are shown laying in the shape of the Cross. Therefore, just as the hymns proclaim, so too does the Icon: Christ has trampled death by death.

Within the dark underworld are scattered broken chains and locks; and at the very bottom is the personified Hades, prostrate and bound. Hades is not destroyed – it is still there – but its power to bind people is gone. There are no chains, no locked doors. If only we raise our hands in supplication and longing for Jesus Christ, He is there to lift us from the grave.

Thou didst descend into the tomb, O Immortal,
Thou didst destroy the power of death!
In victory didst Thou arise, O Christ God,
…bestowing resurrection to the fallen. (Paschal Kontakion