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" (Vulgate Psalm 23:7,9) 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, John the Baptist, and other prophets are often identifiable among the throng. Sometimes Enoch, Elijah, and even the Good Thief may be pictured on the outside of Hades (example). They were all taken up into Heaven in the time before the Resurrection, as they relate in the Gospel of Nicodemus (XXV-XXVI).

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 beside or behind her husband. Many instances are like the one pictured above in making Adam quite old and Eve as a young adult. He represents the "old man" of the Pauline epistles, while she is a type of the Virgin Mary.2

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 in Orthodox images this iconography is used to represent Christ's resurrection. In the west the Resurrection is pictured instead as Christ's exit from the tomb, but there are some Italian examples that picture the Anastasis as a separate event (example). 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. John the Baptist is not usually included, and it is rare for the other notables to be individualized. The chasm and broken door of the Anastasis are rare. When included, they are decidedly incidental. Instead, Christ more often rescues the souls from a cave-like setting, as below, or from a monstrous "hell mouth." The latter detail developed in England in the 11th century3 and can be seen in Harrowing scenes in Austria and in Spain. 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 a cave-like 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.4 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.5

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.6

In the Gospel of Nicodemus, Christ has Michael the Archangel lead his faithful "into the glory and beauty of paradise" (IX[XXV]). This is enacted in the York and Chester mystery plays but in only one image that I have encountered. That image also has Michael holding a prostrate Satan down with a spear or staff, a detail that is included in the York Harrowing. In the Gospel of Nicodemus Michael is not directly assigned this task; rather, Christ has Satan bound in fetters by "the angels".7


From time to time one sees at the bottom of a crucifix an assembly of persons gazing up to Christ (example). This iconography 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.8 This diversity among souls in Purgatory is pictured eloquently in this statuary group, where the various souls are variously impenitent, hopeful, or already on their way up. The motif of souls reaching their arms up toward the savior is adopted in this image of the Harrowing of Hell and also in some images of the Guardian Angels (example).

Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2017-12-12, 2020-04-12, 2020-05-11.



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


  • 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.


1 See Ephesians 4:9, I 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 Romans 6:6, Ephesians 4:22, Colossians 3:9. Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "The Blessed Virgin Mary."

3 Mellinkoff, 19. Schiller (I, fig. 7) has an example from a Winchester manuscript (1023-35) of the Son literally kicking Satan out of Heaven into a hell mouth flanked by Judas and the heterodox priest Arius.

4 Benson, 594.

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

6 Schneemelcher, 522 (II[XVIII]:2. Benson, 601 (line 213). York Mystery Plays, 336 (line 102).

7 Schneemelcher, VI(XXII):2. York Mystery Plays, 248-50 (lines 339-42 and 385-400). Chester Plays, II, 326 (lines 193-204).

8 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."