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The event is known in Russian as Bogoyavlenie i voskresinie, in Greek as ANASTASIS and in Old English as the Harrowing of Hell. This is the Orthodox Church’s greatest feast, celebrating Easter, and showing Christ Descending into Hell and rescuing Adam and Eve from tombs together with Kings David and Solomon (identifiable by their crowns), Saint John the Baptist and other Old Testament figures. All of this representing the general resurrection of humanity.
Anastasis is the Greek term for “Resurrection.” It refers, in general, to Christ’s triumph over death as well as to specific events which took place during the three days between Christ’s Entombment and his resurrected reappearance on earth before his Ascension to heaven. Several New Testament passages imply that Christ descended into the realm of the dead during this period after his death and before his Resurrection. The meaning of this event was interpreted in various ways by early Christian writers, although belief in Christ’s descent into limbo became an article of faith in the fourth century. Apocryphal works such as the Gospel of Nicodemus provided more detailed descriptions of the event and sources for visual imagery. According to this text and commentaries by numerous early Christian and medieval authors Christ descended into limbo to free the souls of those persons who had lived righteously before his coming and hence triumphed over death, Satan, and Hades. (See: http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/articles/pages/3265/Anastasis.html.)
The image is normally considered a Byzantine creation, although the first dated examples occur in Rome in the early eighth century. As an image of Christ’s triumph over death and sin and the redemption of humankind, the Anastasis figures prominently in Christological and festal cycles for Easter, especially in Byzantine art, and is reflective of much complex theological speculation about the aspects of Christ’s death and Resurrection. Earlier images, dating from the fourth century, following the reluctance of artists and patrons to depict the death of Christ, were non-figurative and symbolic as illustrated in a stone carving preserved in the Vatican showing two sleeping soldiers, a cross, symbolising victory, surmounted by the Chi Rho representing Christ (fig. a).
Scholarship recognises several sources for the evolution of the imagery beginning in late antiquity with allegorical images of triumphant emperors trampling enemy captives. However the principal message of the icon is theological: ‘redemption could not be achieved unless Christ’s two natures were complete . . . united in the one person of Christ . . . During their separation from each other in death Christ’s body and soul retained . . . their hypostatic union with [his] divine nature . . . Christ died and was resurrected without compromising any aspect of the doctrine of the two natures’. (Kartsonis, Anna D. Anastasis: The Meaning of an Image, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986. p.36. This is the principle work on the subject. See also Guoma-Peterson, A Byzantinine Anastasis Icon in the Walters Art Gallery, The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, Vol. 42/43, 1984/1985. Also useful is a visit to http://orthodoxwiki.org/Resurrection.)
The eleventh century mosaic at the monastery of Hosios Loukas in Greece (fig. b) depicts the Resurrection in a spare monumental style that reflects the imagery that had begun to appear in the eighth century. Christ, holding an enormous cross and rising from the lower world and the broken gates of Hell, dominates the scene. The remaining figures are limited to Adam and Eve at Christ’s left and, on the right, David and Solomon. All are stepping out of tombs. (A related image is the mosaic at Nea Moni on the island of Chios.)
It is the Palaeologan period, i.e. from the end of the Latin conquest (1261) to the Fall of Constantinople (1453), that the composition undergoes further development and, indeed, reaches its apogee. The 14th century fresco in the Kariye Djami (fig. c), regarded by many as the supreme example illustrating the theme, introduces movement and the humanist elements that would characterise Palaeologan art.
The example currently exhibited at the Temple Gallery has affinities with the well known image in the Hermitage Museum. It is published by the late Dr Alice Bank, formerly curator of Byzantine Art at the Hermitage, as a Byzantine work of the 15th century (fig. d). (Byzantine Art in the Collections of Soviet Museums, Aurora, Leningrad, 1977.) Since then the icon has been attributed by Manolis Chadzidakis to the Cretan master Andreas Ritzos and it is the thought to be the prototype for subsequent images in the Cretan tradition (see A. Karakatsanis ed., Treasures of Mount Athos, Thessaloniki, 1997. p.133.) Today, most scholars would tend see both icons belonging what may be called the ‘Cretan-Byzantine period’. Recent studies, particularly around the painter Angelos Akotantos who died in Crete in 1450, have revealed much new and interesting material regarding the life of Byzantine artists whose creativity ran parallel to the Renaissance schools of Italy . We know most about the life of Angelos from his will written in 1436 which today can be found at the State Archives of Venice. He is the most important Greek painter of the first half of the 15th century when the centre of Byzantine art is transferred from the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, to Heraklion, the capital of Crete, as a result of the fall of Constantinople in 1453. (See M. Vassilaki, The Painter Angelos and Icon-Painting in Venetian Crete, Farnham 2009).
Finally, it is with the art of the 16th century painter, Theophanes the Cretan who worked mainly on Mount Athos, that the form and composition are established as the prototype for Anastasis icons of the post-Byzantine era (fig. e).