The Resurrection Icon – How the West lost, and the Orthodox Christian East kept the original Resurrection vision

In 2019, I had the chance to visit the ancient city of Cappadocia during a recent trip to Turkey. There you will find the remnants of monastic, anchorite community dwellings, which began to form as instructed by the famed St. Basil the Great (330–379, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia), one of the three “Cappadocian Fathers” as they are called (including also his brother St. Gregory of Nyssa [c. 335 – c. 395], and St. Gregory of Nazianzus [329–389]).

(Gregory the Theologian, Basil, John Chrysostom, Nicholas, and Ipathos—stand in the lower half of the eastern apse of the Dark Church)

The monastic dwellings, located today in Goreme, Turkey, carved into soft rock (remnants of volcanic ash and lava from long ago), flourished and expanded over several centuries, yielding several churches that can be visited today at the Goreme Open Air Museum.

The church with the most well preserved icons, due to the lack of sunlight that could penetrate through to the church, is known (for that reason) as the “Dark Church,” which was constructed some time during the 11th century.

There, I came across beautiful, vibrant icons, and one in particular struck me, the memory of which has been revived during this season of the church as we celebrate Christ’s resurrection: the Resurrection Icon, also referred to as “Christ’s descent into Hades” or “Anastasis” (from the Greek word meaning to “rise up”).

In that icon, you may notice some features depicted that may seem unfamiliar to many:

  • Christ is depicted with feet apart and His robes positioned in a way to depict swift movement.
  • Adam is being held by the arm and being pulled up with Christ, symbolizing His victory in redeeming all of mankind, restoring the image of man after the fall in Paradise, returning Adam and all mankind to their renewed state.
  • Kings and Prophets from the Old Testament are depicted as well.
  • Additionally, below Christ’s feet you find the gates of Hades broken (in the shape of a cross because it is by His cross that He entered and overcame Hades); you also find broken keys and shackles, as well as Satan bound and defeated.

In contrast to that resurrection icon depicting a universal resurrection, people may instead be more accustomed to an image of Christ’s resurrection where He individually is rising in glory, without all these other features present:

Notice how such “individual resurrection” paintings depict Christ rising, often with guards who are struck in fear as if there is a calamitous breaking through the tomb, and no one else with Him depicted being taken to Paradise; interestingly, this event didn’t happen this way, as the gospel narrative shows that the only disturbance is when the angel rolled the stone away after Christ had already resurrected and his body was not in the tomb (see St. Matthew’s gospel). In fact, the exact moment of the resurrection itself, in the biblical narrative, is quite minimal on any real description of what happened at that exact time.

Thus, unlike most icons and paintings, which rely on descriptions in the Biblical narrative of what transpired during that scene, the moment of resurrection itself is mostly silent, because (as I’ve heard many bishops teach), it was natural that Christ rise, because He is life, unlike the unnatural submission to death that Christ permitted on the cross, being so unnatural that all sorts of commotion accompanied that event (earthquake, darkened skies, veil of the temple tore, etc.).

The two different resurrection depictions rely on a telling of the narrative from two very different perspectives, so much so that upon seeing the more traditional Orthodox depiction of the resurrection, a professor from the Western Christian tradition was utterly shocked, and embarked on a journey to research this subject, culminating in his writing an entire book on the subject, and the conclusion of his inquiry is evident from the title of the book:


John Dominic Crossan (professor emeritus at DePaul University, whose portrayals of the historical Jesus can often be quite controversial), searched along Byzantium’s Greek Tiber, the Syriac Tigris, the Russian Neva and the Coptic Nile (among several other places) and yielded the conclusion that the more theologically accurate portrayal of Christ’s resurrection is the Orthodox East’s iconographic depiction. He goes on to explore how the West lost this more authentic and traditional theological expression in the resurrection image.

Considering all of this, it is less surprising then when I think about how Western non-Orthodox Christians respond to my questions about the purpose of Christ’s resurrection. I would ask: “Before Christ, where were Adam, Eve, Abraham, David, Isaiah, etc. Where did they go when they died?” The answer I would receive almost exclusively fell into one of two responses: (1) either shrugging with uncertainty, or (2) responding that these all went to heaven before Christ’s resurrection. “So what was the purpose of His resurrection then? What did it accomplish? Why was it needed if everyone could go to heaven without it? On what basis did these people go to heaven?” Again, the response would shock me, and seemed inconsistent with the general distaste for any notion of “good works” as being a means of salvation—they would respond: “They went to heaven because they were good.”

The icon of the resurrection in the Orthodox Church writes the answer in paint:

Humanity was distanced from God when the first man and woman created by God—Adam and Eve—sinned, thereby causing all humans to suffer the same fate: no one would be allowed to live with God in heaven after death. Thus, everyone who died prior to Jesus Christ’s loving and redemptive act on the cross was not allowed to enter into heaven, including some of the most favored of God, such as Abraham, Moses, and King David, because “death reigned” (Rom 5:12) over all mankind after the fall of man caused by the sin of Adam, precipitated by the persuasion of Eve: “Through one man [Adam] sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). The punishment for this sin was set out in no uncertain terms to Adam and Eve: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17).

The term “surely” exemplifies the notion that the death spoken of here meant more than just physical death, but also no access to eternal life in heaven and a condemnation upon all humanity to live eternally away from God after death in Hades, a point with which the earliest Christians are in agreement, as illustrated by the remarks of Abba Alexander of Alexandria, Egypt (c. AD 324): 

When man afterwards had inclined to death, because of the fall, it was necessary that man’s form be recreated anew to salvation by the same Maker. For the form [i.e., the body] lay rotting in the ground. However, that inspiration [i.e., the spirit] that had been as the breath of life—it was detained separately from the body in a dark place that is called Hades. So there was a separation of the soul [i.e., spirit] from the body . . . banished to Hades while the body was returned back to dust.

After the Lord Jesus Christ sacrificed Himself on the cross to make atonement for the sins of humanity (Rom 5:11), whereby “we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Rom 5:10). He resurrected and then ascended into heaven so that He would “appear in the presence of God for us . . . to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Heb 9:24, 26). Having completed His mission to offer Himself on behalf of mankind to reconcile humanity with the divine, we are now given access to living after death, to receive “an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet 1:4). As Bishop Cyprian of Carthage (c.  AD  200–258) put it:

“He restored us by His own sanctification, grant[ing] to us eternity and immortality, unto which He renewed us by the life-giving of His blood [by which He was able to] readmit us back to Paradise, and open the realms of heaven.”

In this context, the Orthodox resurrection icon makes sense, as do the Ancient hymns chanted in celebration of Christ’s resurrection:

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

Pin on Christ

In the Coptic Church, that hymn is preceded by another: “All You Heavenly Orders,” which includes the following verse:

“Rejoice with us today … in the resurrection of the Lord Christ … He led Hades captive, and crushed the brass doors. He utterly broke the bars of iron and, for us, exchanged punishment for salvation. And brought back Adam to Paradise with joy, gladness, and happiness, and his sons who were in captivity, to joy once more.”

More pointedly in the Coptic Church, every single liturgy includes a reference to the harrowing of Hades:

“He loved His own who were in the world, and as a ransom on our behalf gave Himself up unto death, which reigned over us, whereby we were bound and sold on account of our sins. He descended into Hades, through the cross. He rose from the dead on the third day.

And quite explicitly the Coptic Church declares clearly this belief in thorough detail, during the exposition reading of the 9th hour of Great Friday of Holy Pascha Week:

God is the Word, in its perfection, and went to Hades, by the soul which He took from Adam’s nature and made it one with Himself. He lifted with Him the souls that were in captivity according to His great mercy.

The last enemy is Satan, whose he chained with shackles. When the evil guards and the forces of darkness saw Him, they ran away from Him, because they knew His great power. So He broke the doors of brass with His authority, and He crushed the bars of iron.

Those who were in captivity cried in one voice: “Blessed is Your coming to save us.” He then took Adam by the hand and lifted him and his descendants with him and admitted them to Paradise, where there is comfort and joy.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, you’ll find similar messages conveyed in hymns:

. . . He is truly risen as Christ our God, granting those in Hades life and resurrection.

O Savior, immortal as You are, from Hades You rose, by virtue of Your own resurrection raising Your world together, O Christ our God. Mightily You have broken death’s dominion, 

Hades taken prisoner, and Adam has been summoned back, and the curse has been neutralized, and Eve has been liberated; death has been put to death, and we have been brought to life. 

Moreover, you find in the Apostle’s Creed, which is ancient and many non-Orthodox denominations accept:

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died, and was buried,

He descended to Hades.

The Third day He rose again from the dead.

As we celebrate Christ’s resurrection, let’s remember its purpose, and the grace that we have been given to live in the era of the New Testament, whereby we have access through Him to enter into Paradise after this life.

7 thoughts on “The Resurrection Icon – How the West lost, and the Orthodox Christian East kept the original Resurrection vision

  1. In reference to John 20:17.
    Jesus said, “Do not cling to me as I have not yet ascended to the father.”

    Yes, agree with your post. Mary did not recognize or realize the significance of what had taken place three days after Jesus had been laid on the tomb, and upon seeing him, as usual and as customarily May have done many times, she affectionately and lovingly clinged to Jesus. But unbeknown to Mary, things now were not the same.

    My interpretation from John20:17 follows along this line:

    Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father: Do not hold on to me as I have not yet ascended to my Father and to my Glory; I have not yet taken my seat at the right hand of my Father to remain with him in one and the same glory. Do not cling to this earthly tabernacle, because a better and everlasting tabernacle, raised in Spirit, is being prepared. When this is accomplished, I will draw all people to myself, that I may be worshiped in Spirit and in truth.Then I will draw you to me that you may worship and cling to me for all eternity.


  2. Pingback: Resurrection Sunday 2023 – Orthodox-Reformed Bridge

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