In the teaching of the Church, the Descent into Hell is indissolubly connected with the Redemption. Since Adam was dead, the abasement of the Saviour, who had assumed his nature, had to reach the same depths to which Adam had descended. In other words, the descent into hell represents the very limits of Christ’s degradation and, at the same time, the beginning of His glory. Although the Evangelists say nothing of this mysterious event, Apostle Peter speaks of it, both in his Divinely-inspired words on the day of Pentecost (Acts ii, 14-39), and in the third chapter of his first Epistle (1 Peter iii, 19). “He went and preached unto the spirits in prison”. Christ’s victory over hell, the deliverance of Adam and of the righteous men of the Old Testament is the main theme of the Divine Service of Great Saturday; it runs through all the Easter service and is inseparable from the glorification of Christ’s Resurrection in the flesh. This theme is, as it were, interwoven with the theme of the Resurrection. “Thou hast descended into the abyss of the earth, O Christ, and hast broken down the eternal doors which imprison those who are bound, and, like Jonah after three days inside the whale, Thou has risen from the tomb.”
Following the texts of the divine services, the icon of the Descent into Hell expresses the spiritual, transcendental reality of the Resurrection – the descent of our Lord’s soul into hell – and reveals the purpose and results of this descent. In harmony with the meaning of the event, the action in the icon takes place in the very depths of the earth, in hell, shown as a gaping black abyss. In the centre of the icon, standing out sharply by his posture and colours, is the Saviour. The author of the Easter canon, St. John of Damascus, says “Although Christ died as a man and His holy soul departed from His pure body, His Divinity remained inseparable from both – I mean body and soul.” Therefore He appears in hell not as its captive, but as its Conqueror, the Deliverer of those imprisoned therein; not as a slave but as the Master of life. He is depicted in the icon with a radiant halo, symbol of glory, usually of various shades of blue, and often spangled with stars round the outer edge and pierced with rays issuing from Him. His garments are no longer those in which He is portrayed during His service on earth. They are of a golden-yellow hue, made luminous throughout by thin golden rays (“assiste”) painted upon them. The darkness of hell is filled by the light of these Divine rays – the light of glory of Him Who being God-Man, descended therein. It is already the light of the coming Resurrection, the rays and dawn of the coming Easter. The Saviour tramples underfoot the two crossed leaves of hell’s doors, that He has pulled down. On many icons, below the doors, in the black abyss, is seen the repellent, cast down figure of the prince of darkness, Satan. In later icons are seen here also a number of varied details:- the power of hell destroyed – broken chains with which angels are now binding Satan, keys, nails and so forth. In His left hand Christ holds a scroll – symbol of the preaching of the Resurrection in hell, in accordance with the words of Apostle Peter. Sometimes, instead of the scroll He holds a cross, no longer the shameful instrument of punishment, by the symbol of victory over death. Having torn asunder the bonds of hell by His omnipotence, with His right hand Christ raises Adam from the grave (following Adam, our ancestress Eve rises with hands joined in prayer); that is, He frees Adam’s soul and with it the souls of all those who wait for His coming with faith. This is why, to the right and left of this scene, are shown two groups of Old Testament saints, with prophets at their head. On the left are king David and king Solomon in royal robes and crowns, and behind them John the Forerunner; on the right – Moses with the tablets of the Law in his hand. Seeing the Saviour descended into hell, they at once recognise Him and are pointing out to others Him of Whom they had prophesied and Whose coming they had foretold.
The descent into hell was the last step made by Christ on the way of His abasement. By the very fact of “descending into the abyss of the earth” He opened to us the access to heaven. By freeing the old Adam, and with him the whole of mankind from slavery to him who is the incarnation of sin, darkness and death, He laid the foundation of a new life for those who have united with Christ into a new reborn mankind. Thus the spiritual raising of Adam is represented in the icon of the Descent into Hell as a symbol of the coming resurrection of the body, the first-fruit of which was the Resurrection of Christ. Therefore, although this icon expresses the meaning of the event commemorated on Great Saturday and is brought out for worship on that day, it is, and is called, an Easter icon, as a prefiguration of the coming celebration of the Resurrection of Christ and therefore of the future resurrection of the dead.
Leonid Ouspensky, “The Resurrection,” in Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons(Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983) 187-188.