Saturday, 19 April 2014

Happy Easter Saturday! or, The Harrowing of Hell

Have you ever wondered what Jesus Christ was doing in between his death on the cross (Good Friday) and his resurrection (Easter  Sunday)?

Well, he was down in hell.  Rescuing some of the worthy souls trapped down there and taking them straight to Heaven.  Eve, Abraham and Adam were all included.

This is called the Harrowing of Hell (or anastasis in Greek - I just love that word).

The Harrowing of Hell.  Manuscript illumination, from f.54r of MS K.21,
Canticles, Hymns and Passion of St Christ, late 13th/early 14th C.
Source:  Collection of St John's College Library, Cambridge

I'm not 100% sure of the iconography but it looks to me as if Christ is standing on the instruments of his torture (planks from the cross).  I don't know what the symbols on the planks stand for.  He's wrapped his red funeral shroud around himself, or that's what it looks like as he's not fully clothed.  And he's stabbing the Devil's mouth with a long spear-like thing which looks more like a shaft of light than anything physical.

Three souls (the middle one is surely Eve) come huddling out through the Gate of Hell.  I like the way Hell has turreted architecture.  And I love the way the naked humans are walking barefoot on the Devi's teeth.

Satan is angry red (but a different, more orangey red from the regal red of Christ's robe).  The eyes are big and bulging, as are those of a beak-nosed sub-demon baring his teeth at the divine intruder.  Two tiny comic-looking devils cavort in the background:  the blue horned one looks a bit like a cow, and the bat-winged one blowing his little trumpet seems to have jumped out of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.

Four more souls crowd together in Satan's maw.  One of them holds his face in his palm.  Their eyebrows and downturned mouths express desperate misery.  Are they among those about to be saved?  Or are their sins too great?

I like the ocular intimacy (a phrase I borrow from Mika Natif in her chapter in this brilliant book that I'm reading at the moment) between Christ and the foremost human (Adam?).  The anatomical detail is also great:  breast bones, clavicles, rib cages, diaphragms, calf muscles -- all carefully delineated.

Have a peaceful and happy Easter, everyone!

If you'd like to read more:
St John's College Library, mediaeval manuscripts

Icons and their interpretation: The Khora anastasis (great analysis of a brilliant Byzantine Harrowing fresco in the Kariye Cami in Istanbul)

Eat the bible (a sceptic's view)

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