Tuesday, December 20, 2011

O, Key of David! Come, break down the walls of death!

Harrowing of Hell
Petites Heures of Jean de Berri (Paris use)
French (Bourges), 1385-1390
Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France
MS Latin 18014, fol. 166
The fourth of the "O Antiphons", for the 20th of December is: "O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel, controlling at your will the gate of heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom."   This addresses Christ, the descendent of David and Lord of Life and begs Him to set His people free from death.  It also brings to mind the words from the Apostles Creed "He descended into hell". 

The fact that this subject is found in the Apostles Creed testifies to its early appearance in Christian belief, as does the Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday, which is a reading from the Divine Office for Holy Saturday.  This belief is that during the time between His death on the Cross and the Resurrection, Jesus descended to limbo to free the souls of the previously deceased just who were confined in waiting there.  Limbo is a place of darkness and peace, but not of the Presence of God, which had been lost through Original Sin.   Their souls were confined to limbo because had been barred from entering heaven by Adam's sin, but they were set free by Christ's saving death.  For them He truly became the Key of David, breaking down the walls of death and leading the captives to freedom and joy. 

Anastasis (Harrowing of Hell)
Byzantine, 1316-1321
Istanbul, Church of Saint Saviour in Chora
There is a long tradition of images in art illustrating this subject. 

In the East the tradition culminates in the dramatic and dynamic Anastasis of the church of Saint Saviour in Chora in Istanbul, in which Christ seems to drag Adam and Eve from their graves. 


Nicholas of Verdun, Harrowing of Hell
Mosan (Meuse region), 1181
Klosterneuberg Austria, Klosterneuberg Priory

In the West the image appears in the Klosterneuberg Altarpiece by Nicholas of Verdun, as well as in many paintings. 



There are two distinct types of iconography that apply to most of these images. In one, Christ breaks down actual gates, which are often shown thrown to the ground or hanging off their hinges. 


In the other Christ leads or sometimes drags the souls of the dead from the 'mouth of hell', shown as the jaws of a whale-like monster or from a cave that resembles an open mouth. 


In both He carries the staff, topped with a cross or with a pennant bearing a cross, that is His banner of victory over death.


Among the first type are:

Harrowing of Hell
Psalter
German (Swabia), 1230-1255
New York, Morgan Library
MS M280, fol. 10r
Fra Angelico, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1437-1445
Florence, San Marco



 Among the second type are:
Harrowing of Hell
Miniatures of the Life of Christ
French (Northern), 1170-1180
New York, Morgan Library
MS M44, fol. 11v

Andrea da Firenze, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1365-1368
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Capella Spagnuolo






























Later images show Christ dragging the souls of just from a more generalized image of a limbo jammed with just souls in waiting.  In these images the iconography of the gates or the mouth of hell is not as emphasized as in the earlier images.

Andrea Mantegna, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1468
Private Collection
Agnolo Bronzino, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1552
Florence, Santa Croce

Tintoretto, Harrowing of Hell
Italian, 1568
Venice, San Cassiano

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