There are no extant works by early Christian artists of Jesus’ descent into Hell—that mysterious moment when, according to early church tradition, Jesus entered the underworld and raised the spirits of the righteous dead so that they could join him eternally in heaven. It is not surprising: Early Christian artists avoided any images of Jesus’ suffering and death. By the fifth century this began to change, however, and throughout the Byzantine period images of his descent—also called the Harrowing of Hell—became increasingly popular.1

This ninth-century C.E. fresco (above) from the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome is one of the earliest extant depictions. In it, Jesus, at center, grasps Adam’s wrist and pulls him from the clutches of Limbo. Beneath his left foot, Jesus has rather effortlessly pinned the dark, muscular figure of Satan (or else Hades personified), who tries in vain to prevent Adam from leaving. (The figure holding a book and staring at the viewer, located to the left of Jesus, has been identified as St. Cyril, apostle to the Slavs.)2

In an 11th-century Byzantine enamel plaque (above), adorned with gold and precious stones, we still see Jesus pulling up Adam, but the direction of the action is reversed: Jesus is now on Adam’s right, and Jesus is more dominant, bearing aloft his cross as he stands upon Hell’s shattered doors. The doors have been knocked down swiftly and powerfully: The twisted hinges, nails and keys lie next to them. The Greek word Anastasis—meaning “Resurrection”—appears over Jesus.

Over time, Eastern and Western images of the Resurrection diverged.3 The triumphant Jesus, trampling on Satan or standing on the doors of Hell, became standard in the East. In the West, Jesus is typically shown rescuing the righteous dead (as in the Italian Renaissance paintings illustrating this article).