Sunday, April 8, 2012

Iconic Icons: 'Η Αναστασις (The Resurrection)

Anastasis icon dated 1315 from the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora in Istanbul, Turkey
  Χριστος ανεστι!  Christ is risen!  (And you, of course, are responding, "Αλειθος ανεστι!  Truly He is risen!")  Today (for those following the calendar of the Catholic Church) is Pascha (Easter, for most English speakers), the most holy day of days, the feast of feasts, the day of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  Today is the true Passover, when Christ passed over from death to life, and because of this it truly bears the name Pascha ("Passover" in Greek).  To celebrate this miracle of miracles, the Eastern Church has a festal icon of Christ's Resurrection, just as they have icons for various other feasts.

The icon of Pascha is 'Η Αναστασις, The Resurrection.  (Etymologically, anastasis literally means "standing again," combining ana (again) and stasis (standing).)  Though there are multiple Paschal icons, this is the most prominent, showing what is known in the West as the "Harrowing of Hell" (the technical name of this icon is "Christ's Descent Into Hades").  It represents the line of the Creed that states "He descended into hell," where He rescued the just who came before Him.  (An interesting side note: there are two Greek words often viewed as interchangeable by English speakers: Hades and Gehenna.  Both are commonly held to mean "Hell."  Truly, though, Hades is similar to the Jewish notion of Sheol, a place of the dead with neither pleasure nor pain, more of a resting place before judgment.  Gehenna, on the other hand, is what we usually mean by "Hell": the state of eternal punishment for those who reject Christ.) 

The icon shows Christ lifting Adam and Eve from their graves and bringing them into everlasting life.  Behind Him on the left often stand many patriarchs and prophets, among them John the Forerunner (St. John the Baptist), David, Solomon, Moses, and Abel, and on the right stand contemporaries of Christ.  Beneath Christ's feet are the gates of Hades, crushed by His divine power, and strewn about are the remnants of the locks and keys that kept them closed (these details actually seem to reflect the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus).  Christ Himself bears the marks of His Passion, the marks of the nails in His hands and feet, and around Him is a mandorla, a special iconographic type of nimbus/halo that signifies the glorified body of Christ.  The mandorla is also seen in other icons, such as the Transfiguration and the Ascension; it is usually blue or white and almond-shaped (the word mandorla means "almond" in Italian).  Sometimes the icon also contains Satan or other evil spirits being trampled by Christ or being restrained by angels.

In summary, the Anastasis shows Christ's power over Hades through His Resurrection and how God did not leave those faithful to Him in the past to be left there forever: He even rescued those who first sinned against Him.  Let us praise God for His great mercy in the Resurrection!

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Lord Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, have mercy on us!

Nota Bene: Information for this post comes from OrthodoxWiki (Resurrection, Mandorla), Mennonite Life, and Image and Likeness Iconography.

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