The Meaning of the Icon of the Resurrection in the Orthodox Church

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Icon of the Resurrection

The Icon of the Resurrection or Anastasis is also known under the name of “The Harrowing of Hades.” According to the Greek Orthodox Church, this is after Christ has been crucified but hasn’t risen yet, but it is not a passive 3 days in the tomb, but rather Christ enters into Hades to free the souls who had been trapped there. In the center is obviously Christ, dressed in white and surrounded by what looks like an aura. This aura is called a mondorla (Italian for almond), and it represents the Glory of god.

There are several renditions of this icon, some more elaborate than others.

In every rendition of this icon that I have ever seen, the gates of Hades are thrown down; sometimes show in a cross-form with Christ standing on it. Jesus reaches to bring Adam and Eve out from their graves (different icons do not have Christ pulling up Eve, but I wouldn’t take this as misogynistic, but rather that Adam was the first created and it is proper order that he be the first raised).

The crowd surrounding Christ seems mostly unfamiliar in iconography besides St. John the Baptist and that is because they are the righteous people of the Old Testament, which we don’t often see in our everyday iconography. In the most basic icons, on Christ’s right hand side we see Christ’s family including St. John the Baptist, King David, King Solomon. More elaborate icons can include Abraham and others of Christ’s lineage. Back to those same basic icons, on Christ’s left hand side we see those who prefigured him: Abel (the first born human, who was slain by his brother Cain, and was the first human dead), Moses, and Isaiah, with more elaborate icons maybe including the 3 Youths in the Fire (Daniel chapters 1-3), and others who I am going to assume are types of Christ such as Jonah, Joseph, Noah, etc.

Some people have tried to argue that this icon is transcending time and space because the Apostles are on the left hand side of Christ. I have yet to come across an icon depicting the apostles, so I am going to just let that pass as an error by those trying to understand the icon. (But if this icon exists, if Abel is on the same side as them, it seems really confusing, considering he was the first deceased human.)

Underneath the gates of Hades, which have been broken, we find open locks and keys, to show that Christ has freed us from the bondage of death. In many icons, you find a figure that is tied up in the dark area where the keys and locks are found; this represents Death, being bound up and no longer has dominion over us. Rarely, a second figure is depicted tied up as well, which includes Satan into what is bound. (I have also heard it explained that this is the Antichrist, but once again, that follows the pattern that this is a transcendent icon, going into the future and the past, which doesn’t seem to be the prevailing iconography.)

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This post was written by Andrew Athanasiou

About Andrew Athanasiou

Andrew is a student of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, located in Brookline, Massachusetts. Andrew is a Masters of Divinity Student who is also a Seminarian. Andrew is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and his knowledge comes from five major sources: Greek Orthodox Seminary; Greek Orthodox Summer Camp; both being taught and teaching in Greek Orthodox Sunday School; and finally further readings and interests in other theological areas.

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