The Harrowing of Hell from Arundel 157, fol. 11r by Unknown English Artist

Unknown English artist, Central [Oxford and St Albans]

The Harrowing of Hell from Arundel 157, fol. 11r, c.1220–40, Ink, tempera, and gold leaf on vellum, 295 x 200 mm, The British Library, London, Arundel 157, fol. 11r, © The British Library Board

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Under the Earth

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Joanna Collicutt

The Harrowing of Hell (the idea that on Holy Saturday Christ went down into Hades to retrieve the souls of the righteous who had predeceased him) is a post-biblical development of Christian thought, but its origins lie in the New Testament. Matthew 12:40 and Ephesians 4:9 assert Jesus’s descent to the depths, and 1 Peter 3:19 talks of his proclaiming the gospel to imprisoned spirits, both righteous and unrighteous, after his death.

The Philippians ‘hymn’ (2:6–11), thought by many to be a pre-Pauline liturgical text pressed into service by the Apostle, has this sense of descent in its first two verses; there is also a reference to the depths of the earth in verse 10. But the overall trajectory is clearly down and then up, from degradation to exaltation, with the turning point at verse 9.

And why has Paul pressed this hymn into the service of his argument on faithful Christian living? He wants his readers to understand that there is no route to exaltation other than to be ‘in Christ’, to participate in his humility and obedience unto death (Philippians 3:6–14). Christ descended to be with human beings and to offer them the opportunity of being taken hold of by him (the literal translation of 3:14) through faith, so that he could as it were pull them up with him into the resurrection life.

This miniature from the introduction to an English Book of Psalms, communicates this movement superbly, capturing the liberating hold of Christ on Adam (with Eve not far behind), their re-birth from the rather charming Gruffalo-like jaws of hell to the attainment of full human dignity, and the transformation of despair to joy on the faces of those about to be released. Christ is seen to have triumphed over the powers of darkness and, unequivocally to have done this via his cross (Philippians 2:8).

This particular take on the traditional iconography of Christ at the mouth of Hades boldly asserts that there is no such thing as a God-forsaken place or human condition. This is an image steeped in hope.