The Harrowing of Hell, in words and pictures

Holy Saturday: descendit ad infernos

Adapted from a post on

It is a great blessing to meditate on Hell, where the souls of poor sinners go. Our Lord went there on this day to rescue the souls of the righteous, who were waiting in Limbo (not the place of eternal damnation, but a section of Hell nonetheless) for the redemptive act of Good Friday to take place.

The imagery of Hell is meant to be used as a tool; a deterrent. The actual horror of being separated from God, forever, by our own free choice, is something our intellect can barely grasp. The physical torments are but a proxy for the never ending sense of loss, and the pain of having made that personal choice, despite knowing better. Developing your relationship with Jesus Christ is the key to making right choices. He has told you what is important to Him, what hurts Him, and what He expects from you. He wants you to be with Him forever.

“For God hath not appointed us unto wrath, but unto the purchasing of salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us; that, whether we watch or sleep, we may live together with him.” 1 Thes 5:9-10

Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem, Creatorem caeli et terrae,
et in Iesum Christum, Filium Eius unicum, Dominum nostrum,
qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, natus ex Maria Virgine,
passus sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus,
descendit ad infernos, tertia die resurrexit a mortuis,
ascendit ad caelos, sedet ad dexteram Dei Patris omnipotentis,
inde venturus est iudicare vivos et mortuos.
Credo in Spiritum Sanctum,
sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam, sanctorum communionem,
remissionem peccatorum,
carnis resurrectionem,
vitam aeternam.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord;
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.
He descended into hell; On the third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost,
the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.

This is the Apostles’ Creed. It’s most commonly recited during the Rosary. Pious legend has it that each of the apostles contributed one the twelve articles of faith (represented by the twelve lines the creed is broken into). On the first Holy Saturday, the day Jesus descended into Hell, a real actual place, to rescue the just souls who had been waiting there in limbo for the coming of our Lord. Although they had died free from mortal sin, the gates of Heaven could not be opened to them without the redeeming sacrifice of the cross. So the day after the Crucifixion, Jesus went to free them.

Except, that’s not exactly accurate. To say that the gates of Heaven “could not” be opened prior to Christ’s redeeming sacrifice would be to place limits on God’s omnipotence. Time is a construct, and God is not bound by it. If He had so desired, He could have retroactively applied the merits of the cross to the righteous souls at the time of their earthly death, but He chose not to. Instead, He reserved the job to Himself to apply it “in person.”

Go ahead and picture yourself in the scene. Meditate on how hard it must have been for the righteous of antiquity to die in the state of grace, without ever knowing Christ. Think about how much easier we have it, with access to the fullness of Truth, the Barque, the Eucharist, the example of the saints. If the elect among the ancients could make it to the finish line, shouldn’t it be easy for us?

And yet.

The event has been stunningly depicted in iconography through the ages. Much of it is pretty graphic in terms of the furnishings of the place, and demons certainly do come in a variety of shapes and sizes. I’m reproducing a few tame examples here. Blessed Triduum to all.

Image result for harrowing of hell
Image result for harrowing of hell
Image result for harrowing of hell
Image result for harrowing of hell
Related image
Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

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