Like the icon of Sophia, which we’ve discussed in a previous post, this impressive work of art also works as a deep and challenging theological thesis about one of the central beliefs of Christianity: Christ’s Resurrection. It is worth pointing out from the very beginning that the title itself is misleading. Rather than representing the actual moment of the Ressurection, the icon reveals the mystery of that moment indirectly, through the effects it has on humanity. A more appropriate title could be Salvation of the Humankind. The choice not to depict the moment of the Resurrection is in complete accord with Orthodox iconographic canons, which prohibit depicting that tremendous mystery. The Resurrection is described through actions, effects and implications, but never focusing on the very moment when Christ came back to life.
This particular icon of the Resurrectiom is dated to the end of the sixteenth century, and comes from the church of St Nicholas (Mokrovo) in Yaroslavl. Today, it is kept in the museum of Old-Russian Art in the Yaroslavl Kremlin.
The textual sources of the elements in this icon are very diverse, in keeping with the Orthodox idea that Revelation is an ongoing process. As such, old and new texts are united into the same Tradition, passing forward the same essential message: Christ is Risen, and in His Resurrection there is hope for everyone. The apocryphal Gospel according to Nikodimos, selected Psalms, Prophecies from the Old Testament, verses from the Triodion (a collection of church services used during the Paschal Fasting period), akathists, canons, texts and prayers from the writings of the Church Fathers: they all inform this extraordinary icon. Each detail in its composition references a text, a story, a tradition.
The icon as we see it now was first composed in the fourteenth century. This was linked with a renewed interest in Nikodimos’ apocryphal Gospel, which was brought about by a new full translation of the text published at the time. The text relates the story of Christ’s Descent into Hell after His Crucifixion, from where He resurrected with the Forefather Adam, as a symbol of the whole human race. This is represented in the icon by Christ’s central figure. Having broken hell’s gates (which now lie under His feet, tellingly arranged in the form of a Cross), Christ ascends from hell holding Adam (humankind) by the hand. Next to Adam is Eve, fallen at Christ’s feet. Following Adam are those risen from the dead (symbolically dressed in Resurrectional white clothing).
St John the Baptist leads the righteous of the Old Testament towards Christ. According to Orthodox theology, St John descended into hell after his beheading, like all the saints of the Old Testament. In hell, he brought the Good News to the entire human-race. Pay attention to the fact that St John leads a row of saints to Christ (they all have hallows around their heads), whereas the Forefather Adam is followed by people without hallows. There is also a row of ‘un-saintly’ people joining the Resurrection above the row of Holy Prophets and Kings. This is in accordance with St John Chrysostomos’ Prayer on Pascha night, in which the Resurrection of All is affirmed, such that hell is left ‘empty’.
Christ is represented several times in the composition. Apart from the central image of His Descent into Hell, there is a smaller figure of Christ in the lower-right corner of the icon (as we look at it), showing the Resurrected Christ as he appeared to the myrrh-bearing women. These are also represented, together with the Angel who met them and moved the rock to allow them to enter the now empty tomb. Just below the empty tomb, the Roman guards are fallen sleep.
In the opposite corner of the composition, the Angels are depicted defeating the devil. Hell (represented as a fiery monster) ‘throws up’ its content (to quote from the Pascha service), setting free all those who had been under its power and who are now welcomed into the Kingdom – note the Gates of the Kingdom wide open, just under the crushed gates of hell and the defeated devil, and the Angelic Hosts welcoming everyone inside.
Starting with the eleventh century, the composition of the Resurrection icons became increasingly complex. The previous patterns of these icons used to be much simpler and focused on one or the other of the Scriptural details of the Resurrection (such as the myrrh-bearing women or the Angel) leaving the others aside. Starting with the eleventh century, more complex iconographic compositions were created. These included several of these details into the same scene, and also attempted to generate meaning by creating whole narratives within the icon. Sometimes, as we see in this particular icon, these complex compositions even bring together on the same canvas narratives that belong to different times and places.
Many of the characters are repeated in the composition, as they move from one narrative to another. For instance, Christ is represented three times in the icon, while the good thief appears four times. The good thief is of particular interest to the Resurrection story, because his actions surround the Resurrection. His death on the cross and conversation with Christ are some of the last things that happen before Christ’s death, while his entry into the Kingdom (the first man to do so, according to Tradition) is one of the very first things that took place after Christ’s resurrection.
Like poetry, which was the preferred style of the ancient hymn writers, painting overcomes the barriers imposed upon logical narratives by chronology and a sense of geography. Instead of being a drawback, this is a major advantage of art, which makes it highly relevant as a theological tool. Chronology and geography are irrelevant in relation to Christian revelation: Christ’s Incarnation, His Crucifixion and Resurrection affect the essence of the whole world, and are not limited to a certain time and space.