Art of the Redemption 7 – Icon of the Resurrection
In the Byzantine tradition, it is the custom to put out an icon of the feast of the day in the middle of the church, depicting the saint or the event being celebrated. So it is interesting to see what image is used in this tradition for Easter Day (and indeed on all Sundays throughout the year) when Christ’s Resurrection is the particular focus of our celebration. The icon is entitled ‘The Resurrection’, sometimes even ‘The Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ’, but what we see is not a scene at the tomb in the garden where the body of Jesus had been laid. It is possible, as we see in the West, to depict the risen Christ, the result of that moment of Resurrection, but the event itself, not witnessed by any human eye, is considered impossible to depict.
Rather, in order to portray the event of the Resurrection, the Byzantine tradition depicts Christ’s descent into hell. This might seem a bit strange at first: however related the events are, they don’t seem to be the same thing, and we might initially think that the descent into hell precedes the Resurrection.
In fact, though, this image draws us into the very heart of the Easter mystery, for when we talk about the moment of the Resurrection, we are talking about the moment of Christ’s victory, and that is what this icon shows. Here we see Jesus standing on the broken gates of hell, which he has destroyed by his redeeming sacrifice. This is the moment of his conquest of the power of death and hell, and it is in that conquest of death that he rises, the first fruits of the dead, to the new life of the Resurrection. What is more, this icon reminds us that Christ’s Resurrection is not just something that happened to him, for this is the moment when the human race is set free from death, and so we see Christ raising Adam out of the tomb and drawing him to himself, He who is the Son of God and the source of life.
The message of this icon is summed up, too, in the words of the oft-repeated refrain of the Byzantine Easter liturgy: Christ has risen from the dead, conquering death by death, and unto those in the tombs giving life!