The Descent into Hell


Scripture holds that upon his death Christ "descended first into the lower parts of the earth" where he "preached to those spirits that were in prison." The 3rd- or 4th-century Gospel of Nicodemus expanded these remarks into a complete narrative that became the basis for two iconographic types, the Anastasis in the East and the "Harrowing of Hell" in the West.1


In the Nicodemus John the Baptist advises the prophets and patriarchs in the underworld that Christ is about to arrive and rescue them if they are ready to worship him. They are, so when Christ arrives he conquers Hades and takes them up to Heaven.

The Anastasis images follow the details in the Nicodemus quite closely. In the text the angels announce Christ's arrival with words King David recognizes as his own prophecy: "Lift up your gates, O ye princes, and be ye lifted up, O eternal gates: and the King of Glory shall enter in." In the images, Christ is always shown standing on or just beside a pair of broken gates. Some images will also show Satan below his feet, bound in chains just as described in the text. In both text and image Adam is always the first to be rescued. Christ takes him by the hand, and the others follow behind. King David and John the Baptist are often identifiable among the throng or to the side, and sometimes Isaiah, whom the text also credits with having prophesied this day.

The iconography does differ from the Nicodemus in a few details. Hades, a character in the narrative who discourses with Satan at length, is pictured as a chasm below the gates, not as a person. Eve is absent from the text but the images always put her at Adam's side, and some add a youthful King Solomon at David's side too.

Some images add details from scripture. In the picture above, keys scattered around the chasm reflect Revelation 1:18, "behold I am living for ever and ever, and have the keys of death and of hell." Similarly, Christ usually holds either a scroll or a cross, both of which arise from Colossians 2:13-15 (my italics):
And you, when you were dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he hath quickened together with him, forgiving you all offences, blotting out the handwriting of the decree that was against us, which was contrary to us. And he hath taken the same out of the way, fastening it to the cross. And, despoiling the principalities and powers, he hath exposed them confidently in open shew, triumphing over them in himself.
Anastasis is Greek for "Resurrection," and Orthodox churches use this iconography to represent Christ's resurrection rather than picturing his exit from the tomb as in the Western tradition. In this iconography, the rescued spirits are always pictured as fully clothed.


Western iconography also shows Christ with a cross or scroll rescuing Adam, Eve, and other notables from Hades, but there are many differences of detail. The cross will sometimes have a pennon such as one sees in Western images of the Resurrection. Hades is not a chasm but a great fiery mouth attended by demons. John the Baptist is not usually included, and it is rare for the other notables to be individualized. The broken door of the Anastasis is rare and, when included at all, is decidedly incidental. (See below and this example. Unlike the Anastasis, Harrowing of Hell images normally picture the rescued souls as naked. (In one odd exception Adam's genitals are clearly displayed while Eve and the other women in the scene are fully dressed.)
Christ rescues the naked souls from Hell in this a Spanish altarpiece of 1515-25. The figure in the lower right corner leans on the remains of a broken door. Follow this link for details and a larger copy of the photograph.
The Gospel of Nicodemus also strongly influences medieval drama. All of the English mystery cycles have "Harrowing of Hell" plays that make the most of the opportunity for physical confrontation.2 Like the Western images, the English Harrowings do away with the address of John the Baptist, presenting instead a sequence of speeches in which Christ's imminent arrival is discussed by Adam, Eve, and various prophets. The Chester play is especially indebted to the Nicodemus; it borrows the passage in which the souls arrive in Heaven and find Enoch, Elijah, and the Good Thief already there and the one in which Adam and Seth recount their unsuccessful effort to gain some of the oil from the "tree of mercy" in Paradise.3

John's address had found a way to get around the fact that the Old Testament personages could not have been baptized or professed faith in Christ during their lifetimes. John simply says, "now only have you opportunity for repentance…. At another time it is impossible." By the time of the English mystery plays theologians had come up with the idea of a "limbo" where souls are deprived of God but not tormented, so that is where the York and Wakefield plays place Adam and the others.4

Another "modern" feature of the English plays is the function of the archangel Michael as psychopomp. In York and Chester it is he, not Jesus, who actually leads the souls to Heaven. In Chester, the only play that adapts the passage about the healing oil, it is Michael, not "an angel," who explains that the oil is in Paradise and thus unobtainable until the Son of God arrives.5


From time to time one sees at the bottom of a crucifixion image an assembly of forlorn-looking persons gaze up to Christ (example). This apparently refers to the medieval concept that in visiting the prophets and patriarchs Christ also went to the part of Hades called Purgatory. In the Summa Theologica Aquinas argues that Christ visited Purgatory to bring release to those who were ready for it and hope of salvation to those who were not.6 This appears to be the inspiration of this work, which avoids the Hell iconography entirely and shows Adam and the others reaching up to Christ as in images of Purgatory.

Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2017-12-12.



The Anastasis at St. Mark's Basilica. See the description page.


  • 13th-14th century: Diptych relating the Anastasis to the resurrection of Lazarus.
  • 18th century: Slavic icon.
  • Icon in San Giorgio Greci, Venice.
  • 9th century: Fresco in Müstair, Switzerland (damaged, possibly was an Anastasis).
  • 12th century: Christ carries a scroll instead of a cross in this relief at the ca­the­dral of Santiago de Compostela.
  • 13th century: Detail of a tympanum on the cathedral at Trogir, Croatia.
  • 15th century: Detail of a tympanum on the cathedral at Pamplona, Spain.


1 See Ephesians 4:9, 1 Peter 3:19, and the Gospel of Nicodemus. For the date of the Nicodemus, see the introductions in Schnee­melcher (II, 501-503) and James.

2 Benson, 594.

3 Nicodemus, 525-26, 522-23. Deimling, II, 327-28 (lines 213-56), 320-21 (lines 65-80).

4 Gospel of Nicodemus, 522. Benson, 601 (line 213). York Mystery Plays, 241 (line 102).

5 Gospel of Nicodemus, 522. York Mystery Plays, 249 (line 389). Chester Plays, II, 326 (lines 193-204).

6 Aquinas, Summa, III, lii, 2: "Going down into the hell of the lost he wrought this effect, that by descending thither He put them to shame for their unbelief and wickedness: but to them who were detained in Purgatory he gave hope of attaining to glory." III, lii, 8: "Christ's Passion had no greater efficacy then than it has now. Consequently, they who were such as those who are now in Purgatory, were not set free from Purgatory by Christ's descent into hell. But if any were found such as are now set free from Purgatory by virtue of Christ's Passion, then there was nothing to hinder them from being delivered from Purgatory by Christ's descent into hell."