The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has in its collection a Byzantine Crucifixion ivory from Constantinople with an unusual figure at the bottom: a burly, bearded man in a reclining position, being stabbed through his belly by the cross. The Greek inscription clues us in to his identity: “The Cross Implanted in the Stomach of Hades.” This is the ruler of the underworld being subdued by Christus Victor, the conquering Christ!
Hades is associated with death. The New Testament writers use the word, roughly equivalent to the Hebrew Sheol, to refer to the unseen realm of the dead, where people’s souls reside between death and the general resurrection, or sometimes to the grave, the place of bodily decay.
The iconography of Hades being stabbed is unique among surviving Byzantine representations of the Crucifixion, though it is present in some depictions of the Anastasis (Resurrection), known in English as the Harrowing of Hell.
There is also an ancient literary tradition of Hades experiencing gastric troubles in response to Christ’s redemptive work—either being speared through his midsection with Jesus’s cross, or his stomach churning in nervous anticipation of Jesus’s approach. Byzantine art curator Margaret English Frazer cites several such examples in her essay “Hades Stabbed by the Cross of Christ”:
- “With this precious weapon [the cross] Christ tore apart the voracious stomach of Hades and blocked the treacherous fully opened jaws of Satan. Seeing this, Death quaked and was terrified, and released all whom he held beginning with the first man.”—Ephrem the Syrian, “Sermo in pretiosam et vivicam crucem” (Sermon on the Precious and Life-Giving Cross)
- In the Gospel of Nicodemus, Hades frets to Satan about Jesus’s coming to the underworld after his crucifixion: “I not long ago swallowed down one dead, Lazarus by name; and not long after, one of the living by a single word dragged him up by force out of my bowels: and I think that it was he of whom thou speakest. If, therefore, we receive him here, I am afraid lest perchance we be in danger even about the rest. For, lo, all those that I have swallowed from eternity I perceive to be in commotion, and I am pained in my belly.”
- In the Gospel of Bartholomew, upon hearing footsteps descending the stairs to his abode, Hades says, “My belly is rent, and mine inward parts are pained: it cannot be but that God cometh hither.”
- In a sermon among the spuria of John Chrysostom of the fifth to seventh century, the infernal serpent laments that a nail is implanted in his heart and a wooden lance pierces him, tearing him apart. (“In adorationem venerandae crucis,” Patrologia Graeca 62, col. 748)
- Hades, to the snake: “Let us both bitterly lament,
Since in His descent He has attacked my stomach,
So that I vomit forth those whom I formerly devoured.
But now lament with me, for we are despoiled of our common glory.”
—Romanos the Melodist, Fourth Hymn of the Resurrection, trans. Marjorie Carpenter in Kontakia of Romanos, Byzantine Melodist
Again, Hades, crying out: “I am pierced in the stomach;
I do not digest the One whom I devoured;
Just so, on the third day, the whale disgorged Jonas.
Now I disgorge Christ and all of those who are Christ’s;
Because of the race of Adam I am being chastised.”
—Romanos the Melodist, Fifth Hymn of the Resurrection, trans. Marjorie Carpenter in Kontakia of Romanos, Byzantine Melodist
But again, the context of all these passages is Christ’s descent into Hades, part of the resurrection narrative celebrated on Easter. Is there any precedent for Hades being stabbed at the moment of Christ’s death?
Frazer identifies the most likely literary inspiration for our anonymous ivory carver as Romanos the Melodist’s hymn “On the Triumph of the Cross” from the sixth century, which was sung on Good Friday in the Byzantine church. Here’s an excerpt, translated from the Greek by Marjorie Carpenter:
Pilate fixed three crosses on Golgotha,
Two for the robbers, and one for the Giver of life.
When Hades saw Him, he said to those below:
“O my priests and forces, who has fixed the nail in my heart?
A wooden spear has pierced me suddenly and I am torn apart.
I am in pain—internal pain; I have a bellyache;
My senses make my spirit quiver,
And I am forced to vomit forth
Adam and those descended from Adam, given to me by a tree.
The tree leads them back
Again into Paradise.”
Satan tries to calm Hades, but he is inconsolable in his defeat, replying,
“Run and uncover your eyes, and see
The root of the tree within my spirit;
It has gone down into my vitals,
So that like iron it will draw up Adam.”
As is common in the New Testament and early patristic writings, Romanos interprets the Crucifixion as Christ’s victory over death. Through Christ’s self-sacrifice, death is disemboweled, no longer posing a threat. The gates of eternal life with God are now opened.
As I study this tenth-century ivory, I wonder who first owned it and how it supported their faith, and I marvel that after more than a thousand years, this precious object still beckons and speaks. It is the central panel of a small triptych whose two wings are now lost. Its diminutive size—no bigger than a hand—means it was likely a personal devotional object.
The artist places the scene under a baldachin. Jesus’s arms are extended over the crossbeam and his feet rest on a suppedaneum, below which three seated soldiers cast lots for his cloak. The Virgin Mary and Saint John stand on either side in an attitude of mourning. But their tears will soon give way to rejoicing, because the cross’s wooden stake plunges decisively into the stomach of Hades, doing him in; see the blood welling up at the wound. The cross is portrayed as the weapon with which Christ wins humanity’s salvation.
This is a symbolic image, one that manifests physically the metaphysical drama playing out beneath the surface of things. Hades embodies death, the opposite of life, so his impalement represents an end to his reign of terror. Symbolism is a common tool of the religious artist for signposting the viewer toward an invisible spiritual truth, and here the artist uses it to show how Christ has, surprisingly, vanquished death by death.
Margaret English Frazer, “Hades Stabbed by the Cross of Christ,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 9 (1974): 153–61