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The scene takes place in a dark, gaping abyss, the opening of Hell. Christ is shown in the centre of the panel descending into Hell, crashing its doors wide open, to rescue Adam (on Christ's right) and Eve (on Christ's left) from their tombs. A concentric aureole with stars surrounds the figure of Jesus, symbolising heaven and the cosmos. Above Adam on Christ's right are Kings David and Solomon (identifiable by their royal crowns), St. John the Baptist and two High Priests. Above Eve, to the left of Christ, the Apostles can be seen discussing the mystery of the event, their faces suggesting wonder and awe.
The narrative initially derives from passages in the New Testament, especially Ephesians 4:9, 'Now that He ascended, what is it, but because He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?'; and 1 Peter 3:19–20: 'God hath raised up Christ, having loosed the sorrows of hell, as it was impossible that He should be holden by it'. The earliest non-canonical source is the first century Odes of Solomon; for instance: 'Sheol saw me and was shattered, and Death ejected me and many with me' (42:11). The fourth century apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus is also a major source for this tradition, dealing with the theme in greater detail. As with the Odes of Solomon, this text provides an atmospheric backdrop for the iconography's themes of light and darkness (e.g. see 2:18).
The event anticipates the general resurrection of mankind at the Last Judgement, and the transformation of the world at the eschaton. The event is known in Russian as Voskresenie Christovo, in Greek as Anastasis. It is celebrated on Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday and is the Orthodox Church’s greatest feast.
The current version renders the event with exquisite skill. Even though it was created in the 19th century, the quality of the work recalls 17th century icons. This refined quality suggests that it was most likely painted in a workshop in the well-known icon-painting centre Mystera. Even though it uses a completely different palette, the stylistic technique of our object can be compared to a 19th century Mystera version in the Museum of Russian Icons in Moscow (fig. a).