Orthodox icon of the risen Lord
This is one version of Icon of Victory — the Resurrection. You may wish to make the image larger on your screen — just simultaneously press the Control Key and the plus sign or find a larger version on the Internet. All versions are not 100% identical. Slight differences occur. Comments below are based on the one pictured here.
Not many years ago when we received the most recent translation of the texts used at Mass there was some concern about the version of the newly added Apostles’ Creed which has the line He descended into Hell. Why couldn’t they have softened the translation or used some other word, e.g. descent to the realm of the dead (Eucharistic Prayer IV). Do we really need it? Certainly Jesus did not go to the realm of the damned. The various traditions throughout the world of the Easter celebrations show why this is important. Actually, as the Eastern Church’s icons show, this is way properly understood what Jesus accomplished through his resurrection. So let take a closer look at this icon above and see why for some it is the prime Easter icon.
We need some help in understanding the artistic representation of the faith reality of Jesus resurrection. Our brothers and sisters of the Eastern traditions can help us.
First of all, they did not think of Holy Saturday, the day intervening the death and resurrection, as a day of no activity for Jesus. What was he doing? He, like all the others before him who died, good or bad, entered the Underworld as they called it or Hades, or Hell. He went the way of all mankind. There he showed them that he was one of them and that he would raise them up with him to share in divine glory if they extended their hand in supplication seeking his help and mercy. So when Jesus was raised up all those before him, welcoming God’s promise, would be raised as well. This is the way the Father brought about the resurrection of the just — through the hand of his Son crucified and risen. This is why the Son of God became one of us. So how does this incorporated into the icon?
Let us identify who and what we see.
Christ is in the center, clothed in the white of divinity with a cross emblazoned halo and surrounded by a mandorla of light in the shape of an almond filled with the stars of the blue sky (heaven). In his left hand is a staff of authority topped with his cross victory symbol. (Hence the name Icon of Victory.)
For some speculation on my part — the women with jars of spices might be the women who followed Jesus all the way to his death and burial — Mary being in the middle. The figures at the left edge might be John the Baptist and royal figures of the artist’s century. Moses is somewhere in the icon probably on the right edge. The young man with the shepherd’s crook is Abel — the first to die by violence, a reminder of the hatred and violence against Jesus.
But who is at the bottom, coming out of the caskets? By those knowledgeable in these matters the man and the woman are Adam and Eve — dressed quite differently than in the Garden of Eden. They are holding out their hands in petition to the Christ who alone has the power to raise them out of their caskets. With them in the picture all mankind from the beginning are represented. The Risen Lord is Savior of all. Eve is in a posture of prayer with hands uplifted. Christ grasps Adam’s wrist — not the hand. Otherwise Adam and mankind would be using their own power to be raised up. This is the central action of the icon. The Risen Christ takes all mankind with him to the realms above.
But what is that at the bottom?
The two planks are the doors to Sheol, Hades, and Hell. Jesus has broken them open and stands in victory over them — never to be closed again. Paradise is reopened. At the very bottom is the skeleton representing the devil who is bound himself by Christ and unable to bind others and keep them in the tomb. The glorified Christ has conquered sin and death for us.
Probably the most significant feature of this representation of the Resurrection of Jesus is that the risen Christ is ALIVE & ACTIVE. This is not a “still portrait” of Jesus as he is now. Jesus is moving. His posture is such. The trailing edges of his garments are fluttering in the wind by his fast movement. He is in the process of extending his hand and raising Adam up. The risen Jesus is doing something and might be compared to John’s description of the empty tomb where the rolled up face cloth was done by Jesus himself after his resurrection. So our Eastern brothers and sisters show an Easter faith not only that Jesus is now alive but actually “working” for our salvation. The Christ of glory is with us still accomplishing the will of his Father in our time. For them the risen Savior is not “frozen in time” but alive, present and active. This is a wonderful icon for us at Easter as well.
So the Easter faith by this icon account is that Jesus and mankind are one. By becoming part of the human race (including his descent into Hell) he is able to raise us up just as the Father has raised him to glory at his right hand. The resurrection is a saving action of Christ according to the Father’s will.