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Bill Thayer

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Liberation

8Therefore it is said, 'When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.' 9(In saying, 'He ascended,' what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

Ephesians, ch. 4 (Revised Standard Bible)


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The inscription is partly effaced. It starts:
Christus descendens ad inferos liberat . . . (see close-up).

The scriptural basis for the Harrowing of Hell is slender — the passage above, and lesser passages in I Peter (4.6) and Psalms (68.18) — but Christian belief in it is very old, arguably referred to in the Nicene Creed, and particularly vibrant in the Orthodox tradition as well as in early England: after His death on the cross, Christ descended into hell, where He freed all those who, having died before him, could not have received Him for their salvation, yet whose lives were good and whose actions were just. It is this scene of release that is depicted here: carrying the banner that medieval iconography often uses to identify Him after the Resurrection, and accompanied by two angels (mildly interested but, as one can easily understand, ultimately unconcerned), Christ extends His hand to an ancient patriarch, leading the throngs of the righteous dead.


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If the hands are clumsy, the venerable figure, very likely meant to be Abraham, the father of God's Chosen People, is a remarkably handsome piece of portraiture. The characteristic Late-Antique monumental door behind him, shorn from its hinges at the moment of the Crucifixion, connects the iconography to the classic Byzantine and Orthodox tradition.


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As for this little guy, he doesn't matter much. A small, barely visible blot on the background, ignored by all, the Devil spits a sputtering spray of sparks as ineffectual as it is hard to see; to no avail does he try to separate us from the love of God.


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Page updated: 16 Aug 03