The Resurrection in Eastern Iconography

The Resurrection in Eastern Iconography November 23, 2012

John Dominic Crossan’s presidential address at SBL was incredibly interesting, and made fantastic use of technology to explore key elements in Eastern iconography depicting the resurrection – and that is what it is consistently referred to in ancient times, “the resurrection” (ἡ ἀνάστασις) and not “the resurrection of Christ.” The event is consistently corporate rather than individual as in Western depictions.

As you will notice in the example below, there are a number of elements which a comparison shows are consistently found in Eastern Orthodox art: Jesus taking Adam by the wrist, other figures from the Old Testament being present, Hades being trampled on, the gates of Hades broken and lying in a cross, and so on.

I found myself in the midst of a discussion at dinner later in the conference about Crossan’s suggestion that Adam represents humankind and thus the imagery is universalistic. There were voices of skepticism, emphasizing instead that the figures depicted are Old Testament saints and not just anyone.

While it is true that one does not see Cain or Judas included, one does see Adam and Solomon, whose fame is not connected with their piety. Stories were invented of their repentance, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there is not a sort of universalism present. Is there anyone for whom a story of repentance could not be concocted? And so at the very least, the imagery is compatible with universalism.

In having Jesus grasp Adam by his limp wrist, the message appears to be that Adam – and human beings in general – contribute nothing to their salvation. It is God in Christ grabbing hold of human beings and saving us that accomplished salvation, and nothing else. That is far more of a pure message of grace than one finds in many Protestant contexts.

Crossan suggested that the corporate view is closer to the Jewish background of Christianity than the Western view emphasizing the uniqueness of Jesus’ resurrection as a lone individual. (The clip art on the right is just one example of the Western tradition of art depicting Jesus’ resurrection that I happened to come across. Crossan showed a few examples towards the start of his talk).

Crossan also emphasized that the depiction is much harder to treat literally (although Matthew’s Gospel is sometimes thought to do just that). The opening of every tomb and the resurrection of those who lay within is an event which is either publicly and undeniably visible, or symbolic.

What do readers think? How if at all is the message in Eastern Orthodox depictions of the Resurrection different from what one typically encounters in the Western traditions of Christianity?

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  • Drane

    A wonderful image, and one I like very much theologically,especially the communitarian view of resurrection. I have heard Crossan on this at a lecture in
    Coral Gables, FL. I think that the image of a corporate resurrection of the
    believing community is valid, as opposed to the individualism of Western
    images. And I like this image much more than the one on the cover of N.T.
    Wright’s Resurrection of Jesus (though I prefer Wright to Crossan on many
    points). Individualism, in theology as in economics simply leaves the poor and the unbelievers (not to equate them) to their own devices. No grace here.

    On the other hand, as regards universalism, the image doesn’t
    seem to support that entirely. There is the one individual still under the feet
    of Christ, in the underworld. He is in chains, though the chains on his feet
    are broken, his hands are still chained. There is a lock, accessible to him
    centrally located, with keys on either side, and in other places as well. I take this to mean that salvation by grace is available, but some will choose not take advantage of it. God does not force anyone to be in his presence. Some may choose to be separated from God, even though given the opportunity after death, (and after judgement). This would seem to be the situation of the individual at lower right. But still, the image is full of grace.

    On the other hand, a less likely interpretation is that this could yet be a sign of hope, that this person could still choose life.

    • Just for clarification, the individual under the feet of Christ is Hades, and Christ’s trampling on him depicts his defeat of death. The classic orthodox Easter song “Christ is Risen!” mentions this idea, of Christ “trampling on death, through death.”

      • Drane

        Well, I missed that one. But what you’ve said makes the image even better.

  • mirabilis

    (I did not hear the speech and am, as will become obvious, not a Byzantinist). The Anastasis evokes the iconography of the Harrowing of Hell popular during that hotbed of religious tolerance and universalism, the western Middle Ages. The point, at least from the scholastics and more ecclesiastically-oriented mystics’ writings, really seems to have been a question of, “how can we possibly revere the patriarchs if they are in hell,” though it’s not hard to imagine that the popularity of the iconography also drew on currents of “how can God be merciful if there are righteous people in hell/limbo.” In connection with Crossan’s speech, it might be interesting to investigate possible Jewish origins/influence of some of the texts that underlie the medieval western Harrowing–Gospel of Nicodemus et al.

    • Gary

      “how can we possibly revere the patriarchs if they are in hell.” In this case hell = hades = Sheol = grave. Think you’re thinking of Gehenna, the everlasting, burning dump, for us unrepentant sinners. I like the Eastern Orthodox approach. More like Christ leading/teaching us (gnostic), showing us the way, than “Big Kahuna” in the sky, with his triune partners.

      • mirabilis

        Hehe, “in hell” was lazy language on my part and makes a mash of Jewish/early Christian/medieval Christian cosmology. IIRC, the medieval authors I’m thinking of are talking mostly in terms of the patriarchs not being in gloria, i.e. not in heaven. I’m not asserting a personal claim, just wondering what Crossan might have to say about the Western medieval Harrowing iconography/tradition.

        • Crossan did mention the Gospel of Nicodemus, and referred to the artistic tradition as essentially a pictorial representation of what that text depicts verbally.

        • Gary

          Way beyond my limited knowledge.

  • the spirit is the same, even though the clothes have changed. What you are merely implying is an age old error, that in Jewish history, the Sadducee adopted as national restoration, which in turn Jewish/Christian mystics in the first century, were fought vehemently against by Paul. The purpose of the seed analogy in places like 1 Corinthians 15, a common interpretation amongst 2TJ rabbis for the literal/ physical resurrection of the dead (applied to the saints), was to ward off Sadducee or Mystical errors that purported “corporate resurrections” by exposing the true nature of them. They aren’t from Christ.

    • I am not sure if I have misunderstood you, or you have an understanding of ancient Judaism that is puzzling. Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife at all, as far as we can tell. Pharisees, for the most part and as far as we can tell, believed that there would be a resurrection that would be corporeal (i.e. bodily) and corporate (i.e. involving everyone).

      • Hey James,

        Corporate resurrection is akin to the idea of national restorartion that the Sadducee affirmed (void of afterlife). When you have the idea of a corporate resurrection (which occurred in the resurrection of Christ in FULL) attempt to juxtapose itself against the doctrine of the literal, physical resurrection of the dead (of the saints), you have a definitive mystical ideology that does not belong in the Judaic or Christian philosophy. Christ’s resurrection of the dead (the witness record) is the first fruit of those who are dead or have died, or will die. This was the crux of Paul’s message. He used the seed analogy, the rabbinical prose that which described the transformation of the body that which lay in the grave, into a spiritual body (self same resurrection) into the world to come. It is the cornerstone of Judaic and Christian philosophy, and anything different from it, is simply a psuedo-mystical idea that found its roots in some of the many earlier forms of gnosticism. Folks can try and thwart the doctrine to the physical resurrection of the dead, but when we get to 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s send this message home with the very structure and prose that so many in rabbinical circles used to describe the fundamentals to that doctrine. It is only fitting that he would use it to send that message home in Corinth, a congregation that was being infiltrated with the aforementioned.

        Blessings to you.

        • If you are treating “corporate” as though it meant “symbolic” then I can see why you left the comments that you did. But obviously one can have a corporate resurrection of the nation as per Ezekiel’s vision in which this is a symbol of national restoration, and a corporate resurrection envisaging the entire nation or indeed all people being corporeally raised from the dead.

          • Hey James, thanks again for the interaction. I wasn’t referring to “corporate” as symbolic, but I guess it can have those characteristics.

            I imply “corporate” resurrection is to refer to the characteristics of those who are baptized in Christ, have been raised in His death and resurrection; so has the church, in the same schema, is raised “corporately” in Him. You and I, as Orthodox Christians, are raised “corporately” (with the church) in Christ, just as we are raised, “individually” in Him, by His resurrection. To infer that the “resurrection of the dead” is a corporate, or “ethereal” resurrection that does not include mortal, physical bodies, being raised from the dead is simply unorthodox. Paul drove this idea home in 1st Corinthians 15, as I explained, using a very common essay in rabbinical circles, in support for the literal, physical resurrection from the dead.

            When we get to areas like Ezekiel 37, or Hosea 6, Daniel 12, or Isaiah 26, they are all referring to points in history like Assyria, Babylon, Maccabees, etc; it is clearly noticeable that the “literal” dead bodies coming out of their graves is a motif for vindication, that found its “spatial consummation” in Matthew 27:52-53, which I believe Paul lays out very clearly in the resurrection of the dead of 1st Corinthians 15.

            I believe they are all interconnected, all pointing to the example of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. In other words, the purpose of creation was for Christ, and in Christ, the new creation, will find its consummation. That creation fell into the hands of sin, and died. It is raised spiritually, or corporately in Him, and will be raised from the dead physically, in the world to come.

  • 2TrakMind

    It would seem consistent with Jesus’s words, as recounted by John in chapter 12 of his gospel. “Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all ALL MEN to Myself.”