If yesterday, Good Friday, was the day that Christians mark Jesus’s death on the cross, and tomorrow, Easter Sunday, is the day of the Resurrection, then what is today? A remarkable answer is given in an ancient anonymous sermon from the first centuries of the Christian era. “Today there is a great silence over the earth,” it says. “God has died in the flesh.” The death of God sounds at first hearing more like something that Nietzsche would have preached, rather than a text recited through the Christian centuries. Yet the idea follows the logic of the central belief that God became man and was born in Bethlehem, only to die outside the walls of Jerusalem.
A name Jesus was prophesied to bear was Emmanuel, “God With Us” – with us who lie helpless in hell, bringing a hope of heaven.
This Christian belief is expressed in stark brevity by the Apostles’ Creed, as found in the Book of Common Prayer: “He descended into hell.” Jesus was really dead, with his soul separated from his body, which lay in the tomb. It was then, the belief grew, that he brought the good news to hell or Hades – the abode of all those who had died since Adam’s day – that they were being set free.
Disembodied souls are not visible, but the descent among the dead, in English terms the “Harrowing of Hell”, had a strong appeal to visual artists in the western and eastern Christian traditions. Perhaps none is more energetic than the mural inside the church of the Saviour in Chora outside the old walls of Constantinople, where Christ, having broken the doors of hell, pulls Adam and Eve by their wrists from their graves.
The scene is realised in an utterly different way in a canvas now on show at the National Gallery in London as part of its exhibition Michelangelo and Sebastiano. This painting by Sebastiano, normally in the Prado, is reunited as part of a triptych with a lamentation over the dead Christ, from St Petersburg and a 17th-century copy of the lost scene of Christ appearing to the Apostles. In the Renaissance eyes of Sebastiano, Jesus reaches down with a muscular arm to comfort the cold, naked prisoners of Hades. He bears a tall, very thin stave – no less than the upright of an etiolated cross, the emblem of his terrible and lonely execution transformed into the banner of his victory over death.
Sebastiano follows the iconographic convention of showing Christ with the wounds of his death in his hands, feet and side, here shown as the smallest red marks. By his wounds, the dead are healed and death undone. When he rises from the dead on Easter day, these wounds will still be seen, as they are days later to doubting Thomas, his disciple.
The visit to the prisoners of Hades is a strong myth. Something of it appears in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Christians believe it is a story that is true. New life at Easter is more than the symbolism of eggs (whether painted or chocolate). It is light brought into the dungeon of sin, suffering and death. Gassed children in Syria, Copts blown to bits at church in Egypt, the daily misery of life in North Korea – these could be called hell. With his own wounds still fresh on his entombed body, Jesus stands there in hell. A name he was prophesied to bear was Emmanuel, “God With Us” – with us who lie helpless in hell, bringing a hope of heaven.