Thursday, April 28, 2011

Icon of Pascha

Here in one (of countless) variations of "The Harrowing of Hades," the icon all Orthodox churches display on Pascha and all during the paschal season. It's a good example of my all-time, far-and-away, favorite icon, so I thought I'd share it with you.

Christ is emptying hell.  He has begun with Eve, who looks on somewhat sleepy-eyed still, as if in a daze; and at the moment depicted, He is in the act of raising Adam, who always wears a look of astonishment. "Who, me?" he seems to be asking. "Me, of all people, whose sin caused such deformity to human beings and caused so much grief to all succeeding generations? You're raising ME to new life?"

On one side of Christ stand the Old Testament patriarchs, prophets, and kings - or at least a representative sampling of them, while on the other side are (some of) the Apostles.  Together with the angels above, they all look on in utter amazement, some of them turning to each other to see if anyone can comprehend. 

You can recognize St. John the Forerunner (Baptist) by his disheveled look and by his performing his usual task, pointing out the Christ, bearing witness to Him.  St. John's hand, or at least his finger, always penetrates the "mandorla" (almond-shaped or egg-shaped aureole around Christ). That mandorla signifies a different dimension, something happening not in ordinary space and time. 

Christ is standing upon the Gates of Hell, which He has smashed open.  They are shown in the shape of a cross, by which He has gained access to the dark domain.  Below Him, in the pit, lie hell's locks and hinges, broken to pieces.

Christ is shown larger than anyone else, signifying that He is more alive than anyone else; in fact, He is the only One Who has Life in His own right, as a property of His own nature, whose being is non-derivative, uncreated.  Even His garments seem alive, radiant and flowing in the breeze, seeming almost ready to fly.

Usually the Cross is shown directly overhead, an allusion to the legend that Christ was crucified directly above Adam's grave.  (Here, the mandorla, being green, doubles as the Hill of Calvary.)

As always in any icon, you're looking at reverse perspective; the far-away mountains (yes, those are stylized mountains) appear huge, as if nearby, and the angels in heaven are larger than the people nearby.  Reverse perspective makes all the icon's lines converge upon you.  It makes the scene open up into infinity (instead of closing at a finite point ahead of you).  Because of course it is all about God's love for you and me.

3 comments:

Emily H. said...

Very good description of that icon! I've always liked this icon, the Harrowing of Hell.

melxiopp said...

Check out the subtly odd Resurrection icon on the cover of AGAIN this month:

http://www.antiochian.org/sites/antiochian.org/files/april_2011_word.pdf

Some have surmised it betrays legacy Calvinism.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Melxiopp, it certainly doesn't have anything much to do with Orthodox faith, does it? Giving the elect His hand, and the damned only a scroll...

The adjectives (and adverbs) I'd use to describe this "icon" are much stronger than "subtly odd".