Understanding Orthodox Icons: Descent into Hades

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.

Source: http://www.orthodoxroad.com/christs-descent-into-hell-icon-explanation/