The Dream of the Rood is one of the earliest Christian poems in the corpus of Old English literature and an example of the genre of dream poetry. Like most Old English poetry, it is written in alliterative verse. Rood is from the Old English rod ”pole”, specifically “crucifix”.
Preserved in the 10th century Vercelli Book, the poem may be considerably older, even one of the oldest works of Old English literature.
image: Vercelli Book
The Dream of the Rood
One of the things I reread each Lenten season is “The Dream of the Rood,” an Anglo-Saxon poem wherein the narrator dreams about the cross, which is re-imagined as a faithful thane (a warrior in service of, and under the protection of the king). What looks like defeat is in fact victory, and the sweat and blood Christ shed shine like the costliest jewels.
The original text and my translation are under the cut.
“Christ In Limbo”, c.1655, Alonso Cano.
Follower of Bosch
Three depictions of Christ in Limbo.
In the context of Christian theology, the Harrowing of Hell (Latin: Descensus Christi ad Inferos, “the descent of Christ into hell”) is the Old English and Middle English term for the triumphant descent of Christ into Hell (or Hades) between the time of his Crucifixion and his Resurrection when he brought salvation to all of the righteous who had died since the beginning of the world (excluding the damned). After his death, the soul of Jesus was supposed to have descended into the realm of the dead, which the Apostles’ Creed calls “hell” in the old English usage. In some Christian theologies, it is believed that Jesus’s soul remained united to the divinity during this time. The realm into which Jesus descended is called Sheol by some Christian theologians to distinguish it from the hell of the damned.
This nearly-extinct term in Christian theology is referenced in the Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creed (Quicumque vult) which state that Jesus Christ “descended into Hell”. However, there are no explicit New Testament references to Christ having descended to the underworld (although mention is made in 1 Peter 3:19–20 of Jesus preaching to “the imprisoned spirits”). Its near-absence in Scripture has given rise to controversy and differing interpretations. It is unclear how it became part of the Apostles’ Creed.
According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, the story first appears clearly in the Gospel of Nicodemus, written by a Roman praetorian named Ananias circa 425 CE, in the section called the Acts of Pilate, which also appears separately at earlier dates within the Acts of Peter and Paul . The descent into hell had been related in Old English poems connected with the names of Caedmon and Cynewulf. It is subsequently repeated in Aelfric’s homilies c. 1000 CE, which is the first known inclusion of the word “harrowing”. Middle English dramatic literature contains the fullest and most dramatic development of the subject.
As an image in Christian art, the harrowing is also known as the Anastasis (a Greek word for “resurrection”), considered a creation of Byzantine culture and first appearing in the West in the early 8th century.
AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL ART VII:
THE HARROWING OF HELL
Holy Week, the culmination of the liturgical year, marks the anniversary of Christ’s Passion, as narrated by the four evangelists, beginning with the Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), continuing through to the Crucifixion (Good Friday) and concluding triumphantly with the Resurrection (Easter Sunday). The synoptic Gospels are silent on this subject, but Paul mentions that before ascending into Heaven, Christ ”also descended first into the lower parts of the earth” (Ephesians 4:9) and Peter states that ”being put to death indeed, in the flesh, but enlivened in the spirit,” Christ went and “preached to those souls that were in prison, which had been some time incredulous, when they waited for the patience of God in the days of Noah” (I Peter 3:18-20). The event alluded to in these epistles is further elaborated in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, which narrates how on the Saturday between his crucifixion and resurrection, Christ descended into Hell, or Limbo (limbus patrum is how Gregory the Great phrases it), broke down the gates, vanquished and chained Satan, in order to rescue the worthy Hebrews who had been placed there. This description is from the Baltimore Cathechism:
“Hell" as used in the Creed, does not mean the place where the damned are, but a place called "Limbo". You know that when our first parents (Adam and Eve) sinned, Heaven was closed against them and us, and no human being could be admitted into it until after the death of Our Lord; for He, by His death, would redeem us, making amends for our Fall, and once more open for us, Heaven. Now from the time Adam sinned, until the time Christ died, is about four-thousand years. During that time there were at least some good men, like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and others, in the world, who tried to serve God as best they could, keeping all the Divine Laws known to them, and believing that the Messiah would some day come to redeem them. When, therefore, they died they could not go to Heaven, because it was closed against them. They could not go to Hell, because they were good men. Neither could they go to Purgatory, because they would have to sufferthere. Where could they go? God in His goodness provided a place for them, Limbo, where they could stay without suffering until Our Lord reopened Heaven. Therefore, while Our Lord’s Body lay in the Sepulchre, His Soul and Divinity went down into Limbo, to tell these good men that Heaven was now opened for them, and that at His Ascension, He would take them there with Him.
Only after he had corrected this problem, was Christ able to ascend to Heaven on Sunday.
Once arrived at the limbus patrum, Christ’s next task was to retrieve the worthy souls and lift them out of Hell. In the Greek of the of the New Testament, this event is referred to as the anastasis (αναστασις), which means an upwards rising. This is the term used to describe the event and the pictorial iconography developed to represent it.
In Byzantium, the anastasis is represented more frequently than in the west, appearing in mosaic programs, manuscript illumination, and icons depicting the Passion cycle. The standard compositional formula can be seen in the early eleventh-century mosaic program of the church of the Greek monastery of Hosios Loukas. Here Christ, clad in a tunic shot through with gold and carrying a military banner, strides out of Hell, pulling Adam and Eve among behind him, while on the left two Old Testament kings watch and wait their turn. The anastasis not only shows what happened on Holy Saturday, but it also represents Christ’s triumph over death: the radiant garment, banner and display of athletic ability all alluding to his power, already in evidence on the day after he was out to death. This iconography is given a more dramatic treatment in the early 14th-century fresco depicting the anastasis in the Church of the Chora Monastery (Kariye Djami) in Constantinople. This masterpiece of Palaeologan painting shows a more massive Christ, clad in a diaphanous white robe and framed by a starry mandorla (again, suggesting he had acceded to his divinity prior to his resurrection), in the act of tearing the recumbent Adam and Eve out of their tombs simultaneously. His stance, bodily torsion and musculature, all made clear by the classicizing drapery, speak to his great power, as does his easy victory over devil. The curved half-dome of the apse posed a unique set of challenges which the artist brilliantly solved by having Christ, who stands over a caesura, with his feet planted on the separated right and left grounds, pulling not only Adam and Even out of their tombs, but also holding the two halves of the composition together.
Western depictions of the Harrowing often represent Hell as the yawning mouth of a demonic monster, in which those in need of rescue stand. The addition of the Hell mouth makes the plight of the unsaved more dire and accentuates Christ’s heroism and strength more vividly than the more dignified Greek works. Western depictions clearly indebted to Byzantine exemplars also emphasize Christ’s physical prowess as seen in the enameled plaque made by Nicholas of Verdun made for the Augustinian canons of Klosterneuburg, which shows the shows a half-nude, well-muscled Christ trampling the devil while turning back to drag Adam and Eve out of Hell at the same time.
AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL ART:
I: Saint Denis and Gothic Art
II: The Carolingian Renovatio
III: Romanesque Manuscripts
IV: Grisaille, or The Abstention from Color
V: The Social and Material Contexts of Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna
VII: The Harrowing of Hell
VIII: The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial
IX: The Art of the Dark Ages
The Harrowing of Hell
Today, the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, we pray and fast, and wait for the return of Jesus, our Risen Lord. It is quiet and empty for us here on earth. But under the earth, it is different! Christ has descended to the dead, as we say in the Creed, where he looses the bonds of death, freeing Adam and Eve along with the Kings, Prophets and the just souls of the Old Testament. This is called the the Harrowing of Hell, and also Christ in Limbo.
In icons, mosaics and frescoes of the Eastern churches the Resurrection is shown as the Anastasis: the risen Christ in Hades, holding the Cross, taking Adam and Eve by the hand and raising them, with the Prophets and Kings gathered around. The smashed gates of hell are beneath his feet, and locks and keys that fastened it are scattered in the abyss.
The gates of death opened unto thee in fear O Lord, * and the gate-keepers of Hades were terrified at the sight of thee, * for thou hast smashed the gates of brass, * and crushed the bars of iron to powder, * leading us out of the darkness and shadow of death * renting asunder our bonds.
Here are two examples of the Anastasis, as typical of the Eastern art:
Byzantine. Harrowing of Hell. 14th c fresco in the parecclesion of the Chora Church, Istanbul.
Unknown Russian Icon painter. Resurrection of Christ and the Harrowing of Hell. 1500s. Egg tempera on wood, 131 x 104 cm. Ikonen-Museum, Recklinghausen
The theme is similar in Western art, where you can often see the devil crushed beneath the door, or beneath Christ’s foot.
Unknown Flemish Master. The Harrowing of Hell. c. 1460. Oak with polychrome decoration, height 98 cm (case). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Albrecht Durer. Harrowing of Hell; or, Christ in Limbo (No. 14). 1512. Engraving, 117 x 73 mm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Fra Angelico. Christ in Limbo, from Scenes from the Life of Christ. 1451-52. Tempera on panel. 123 x 160 cm. Museo di San Marco, Florence.
Paul Cézanne. Christ in Limbo. c1867. Oil on canvas. H. 170; W. 97 cm
Unknown English Miniaturist. The Harrowing of Hell from the St. Alban’s Psalter. early 12th century. illuminated miniature. University of Aberdeen, Historic Collections
Pietro Lorenzetti. Descent into Limbo. c. 1320. Fresco. Lower Church, San Francesco, Assisi
Tintoretto. The Descent into Hell. 1568. Oil on canvas, 342 x 373 cm. San Cassiano, Venice.