Russian Medieval Descent into Hell Icon

Descent Into Hell, 14th Century, Moscow School

Descent Into Hell, 14th Century, Moscow School

This Icon of the Resurrection comes from the Moscow school of Russia in the 14th century. This time and place saw a flourishing of hesychasm – the Orthodox tradition of silence, prayer, and asceticism arising from the monks and nuns of the 1st millennium. Therefore, some elements of this tradition are found in this particular Resurrection Icon.

Within the mandorla surrounding Christ, there are numerous angels, each one bearing the name of a virtue. These angels are shown throwing spears down into hades at demons named after corresponding vices, causing much chaos and anguish among them. This creates an interesting counter-image to contemporary paintings of Western Europe, where it is the demons who have the pitchforks, tormenting lost souls. At the bottom, hades in bound by two more angels. Other details within the Icon are common to all Resurrection Icons.

In Hades

Souls in hell pray, while above them a vice is speared

Numerous monastic saints have written on the vices (or “passions”) and how to navigate their snares in order to reach Christ. This Russian Icon imagines this in stark clarity.

The Victory that the Resurrection Icon shows is complete: not only victory over the grave, but victory over sinful passions too. Yet despite their defeat, the passions are no less terrifying, as shown by the souls in hell – in the bottom corners of the icon – who fearfully look across the chasm toward Jesus. Their hands are held up in prayer and supplication and indeed this is the only way to overcome the passions and be resurrected with Christ. The virtues defeat the passions, yet the virtues cannot be separated from Christ’s glory, where they dwell, and from where they help overcome the passions that surround us. Only because of the Son of God’s act can we ascend from the grave, be with God, and share in those virtues whose source is in Jesus Christ.

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2 Responses to Russian Medieval Descent into Hell Icon

  1. Poppy says:

    Virtues…. i had to look that up. Its not a word i heard before like ever!!!! Virtues defeat passions well only sinfull ones because passion is a good thing.

  2. iconreader says:

    “Passions” is the word used by a lot of the Saints to refer to vices; it’s not used in the same way as “passion” is today, which means something more like “zeal”.

    There are a number of “passions” listed by the saints: things like “lust”, “greed”, “sloth”, and “pride”. Given that these things are defined as passions, it’s common to read about the saints saying “dispassion” is something to strive for. This is not to be confused with the more modern usage, which is used to define an intense emotional feeling – which of course can be harnessed for good.

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