Fra Angelico at the Gates of Hell

Moses and John the Baptist: The Final Exodus

As explored in a previous essay on Fra Angelico’s The Harrowing of Hell, both Adam and Abel, leading the procession from the cavern of hell, serve as a first reminder of the dust of the wilderness. Through its very distance from heavenly glory, this dust is transformed into a symbol of the depth and creative power of God’s love. As God never abandoned man in the wilderness of the Old Testament, he now follows man all the way to the barren tomb of Hell itself in the person of Christ.

However, his descent follows a long period of waiting in the wilderness. Though God heard the cries of his people, they did not, it seems, immediately hear his response. Fra Angelico specifically highlights the figures of Moses and John the Baptist to the front left of the processing figures. Both these characters entered the wilderness of the desert, awaiting the promised coming of God. Though Moses never entered the promised land and John the Baptist never witnessed the resurrection of Christ, they are depicted here moving forward in a gesture of prayer, as their hope in God’s promise has finally been fulfilled. Thus, Christ’s Harrowing of Hell demonstrates that waiting in the wilderness does not signify despair, but confidence in the providence and mercy of God, founded in the hope of His coming.

Fra Angelico 024

Moses waited forty years in the wilderness before God spoke to him through the burning bush. He waited on God for forty days on Mount Sinai to receive the law. The Israelites in the wilderness below, in failing to wait on the Lord and constructing the golden calf in his place, lose sight of God’s proximity even through periods of silence. Instead, they must wander forty years in the wilderness before confidently trusting His presence and entering Jericho. The time in the wilderness was not in vain, however, as their wandering remained guided by God, leading them towards his final redemption:And you shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart” (Deut 8:2 NKJV). Israel was only able to enter Jericho through complete reliance on God, through the humility taught in the wilderness.

Seeing this period of waiting as a time of formation, we can conclude, as Jennifer Roberts, that “delays can themselves be productive. . . . Changing the pace of the exchange would have changed the form and content of the exchange.”[1] She specifically describes how time contemplating art is productive in shaping a perceptive vision, seeking something beyond what we can first grasp. Similarly, Fra Angelico’s painting, asking us to stop and patiently observe Christ’s form, demonstrates the transformative power of waiting on God. The wilderness of empty vision and bare horizon leaves us longing more keenly for the promised sight of Christ. The vision of Christ is worth waiting for because, as Aquinas proclaimed, “the enjoyment of the sight of God is the ultimate aim of man’s being . . . there can be no complete and final happiness for us save in the vision of God.”[2]

Resulting from this sense of progress toward a final goal, God transforms the directionlessness of the desert wasteland into a place of purpose. For, “time, even as a void, not created or controlled by the creature, offers the necessary ‘space’ in which mind can clearly reveal, express, and perfect itself.”[3] This perfecting nature of waiting is possible through the knowledge that at the end of the emptiness comes encounter, a union with God for which we now await and prepare. T.S. Eliot takes this point even further, suggesting that not only should we wait patiently in hope for what we cannot see, but at times we await the hope that we lack, knowing that our desire themselves need to be cleansed in the wilderness:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.[4]

Christ’s entry into hell shows that the wait of the wilderness is not in vain. The sorrow of Israel’s exile had prepared her for future joy, for “when there is a delay in reaching the possession of the beloved, there is sorrow, a sorrow that purifies.”[5] Within Fra Angelico’s fresco, Moses and John the Baptist stand out with drawn and weary expressions. Their eyes have become hallowed and dark in the abyss of waiting, and yet their gaze is now granted the perfect vision of Christ himself.

And so the challenge of waiting in the wilderness is in fact a mercy of God. In 1 Peter 3, Paul reminds us that Christ’s salvation of these patriarchs not only fulfills their time of waiting on the Lord but points towards the patience of God himself:

He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water (1 Pet 3:19–20).

God allowed himself the humiliation of remaining obscure while Lucifer reigned in the wilderness—all for the sake of forming Christ’s body in the wilderness, of allowing Noah to prepare the ark so he may save his life, of allowing Abraham’s children to grow numerous so that he might draw all to him, and today, allowing Christ’s word to spread forth so that more might enter into his salvific care.[6]

Christ transforms the nature of waiting because we are waiting on the promise of God, which he has already fulfilled through arriving in the wilderness himself. We await the already. We wait for the redemption of the body that Christ has redeemed. We await the defeat of Satan, whom Christ has crushed under the door of Hell. And so, in waiting, we participate in Christ himself. In waiting for re-creation, we participate in our new formation in him. In waiting for communion with God in eternity, we experience communion with Christ and the saints. In waiting for the final relief in heaven from suffering, we can find joy by entering into Christ’s suffering now. In waiting on the city of God, we take part in building it, in joining the cry of the Church to turn to God.[7]

As a result, the figure of John the Baptist asks us to envision the wilderness not only as a place of waiting for and expecting God’s promise, but as a place in which to proclaim his work:

As it is written in the Prophets: “Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You. The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; Make His paths straight.’” John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (Mark 1:2–4).

John the Baptist used the preparation in the wilderness, awaiting Christ, as a way to participate in God’s mission in Christ to reach the ends of the world. The same purpose that sends Christ into the pit of hell asks us now to enter back into the wilderness of the world to spread his word: “For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” (1 Pet 4:6). Just as John the Baptist was joined to Christ, baptizing in His name even in the midst of the wilderness, so Christ now asks us to baptize in the wilderness, experiencing continual transformation through both the celebration of and expectation of His presence: Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen” (Matt 28:19–20).

Long Live the King

The final identifiable figure among those in limbo is King David, the anointed King of Israel, the man after God’s own heart, the chosen one. His glory, as depicted in the fresco, crowned with Christ and numbered among the Old Testament patriarchs, seems natural. However, we recall that David began in the wilderness, forgotten by his father and his brothers and pursued by Saul as an outcast of Israel. He experienced the wilderness as a place of fear, danger, pursuit, and rejection. Once the glorious victor over Goliath, he is cast out as an enemy: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, And from the words of My groaning?” (Ps 22:1). In fact, David’s depiction of the wilderness in Psalms evokes Hell itself. He cries out, “You have brought Me to the dust of death” (Ps 22:15) as one “who cannot keep himself alive” (Ps 22:29). Far from being the hero, he has become the enemy. Far from being the glorious warrior, he flees for his life. Far from belonging to God’s covenantal people, he has been cast out of the gates.

However ironically, it is in the midst of the wilderness that David bears true signs of becoming a king, of upholding authority and mercy, and carrying out justice. In 1 Samuel 24, from the darkness and fear of a cave, David’s pursuer Saul falls weak and exposed, but David, instead of capitalizing upon the hidden darkness, has mercy on Saul, distinguishing himself not as an enemy, but as one who acts for the good of Israel and Israel’s king, even against his interest: “see that there is neither evil nor rebellion in my hand” (1 Sam 24:11). And consequently, when Saul learns of David’s mercy, he declares, “And now I know indeed that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand” (1 Sam 24:20). David became a king in sacrificing his kingship to Saul, recognizing that the God who had promised his reign had also promised authority to Saul, that in seeking to take away Saul’s rule, he would become an enemy, deserving to be driven to the wilderness and outcast from the city.[8] As Eliot writes:

In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.[9]

David becomes truly free to be a king when he recognizes that he can display the glory, authority, and mercy accompanying kingship even outside the city walls, outside public recognition, and outside of present power and success. As a result, the freedom from fear of the pursuit and rejection of the wilderness allows him to truly enter into proper communion and relation with others. He is made fit not only for earthly rule, but also for participation in Christ’s final kingdom.

The freedom from fear of the wilderness ultimately rests on knowledge of Christ’s coming. In Fra Angelico’s work, David has entered the cave of death and yet from the midst of that cavern freely joins in Christ’s kingdom. Knowing of Christ’s coming, as a result, gives freedom to our present wilderness. As Robinette writes, “To live life consciously as a being-unto-resurrection is to know true freedom in the present: freedom from the compulsion to hoard existence, afraid that life is draining away into an impersonal abyss . . . freedom for that joyful releasement into our common corporeality as the site of God’s salvation.”[10] We can retain confidence amidst the fear of pursuit within the wilderness because we know that the lost sheep has been and is being pursued by the shepherd, that the Good Shepherd left the sheepfold to find the lamb in the wilderness.[11] No longer fleeing the enemy, the pursuit found in the wilderness has been transformed into a pursuit of love; the lamb lost in the wilderness has been pursued by the shepherd. And so, responding to the forsaken cry of David in Psalm 22, we can join with him in rejoicing, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me” (Ps 23:4).

The freedom to enter the terror of the wilderness as a place where Christ the Good Shepherd grants his “rod and staff” of comfort[12] is further enhanced by the knowledge that the shepherd himself chose to be pursued. As the ultimate display of freedom from the fear of the wilderness, Fra Angelico shows Christ purposefully entering the gates of hell, displaying “that freedom of his own love which descended willingly into the Abyss.”[13] Not only does Christ face the pursuer without fear, but he chooses to become the one pursued:

He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, So He opened not His mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment, And who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; For the transgressions of My people He was stricken (Isaiah 53:7–8).

In The Gospel of Nicodemus, a text which heavily influenced Fra Angelico’s portrayal in San Marco,[14] Satan and Hades argue over the power of Christ, Hell concerned that Christ’s nature as God will bring the power of life to Hell, while Satan remains confident, “His death is nigh at hand, that I may bring Him to thee, subject to thee and me.”[15] Satan trusts in his power over Christ, that entering into death and the cavern of Hell brings God himself into Satan’s domain of authority, within the walls of his kingdom. And yet Christ’s entry into Hell does not bow to Satan’s will, for he enters willingly, not abandoning his freedom when entering chains, but showing freedom from them most perfectly in his ability and purpose to pass through unharmed. The Hell that shakes and frightens all mankind now trembles in fear: “Who then art Thou, who hast so fearlessly entered our bounds, and not only fearest not our punishments, but attemptest moreover to deliver all from our chains?” Bemoaning the lost power of the wilderness over all mankind, “the human race no longer fears us. And more than this, the dead, who were never proud before us and could not at any time be happy as prisoners, now stoutly defy us.”[16] Christ demonstrates his complete dominion over death by leaving behind his throne for the wilderness. He does not merely redeem mankind despite the power of death but reverses the power of death over them.[17]

He Comes in Glory

As explored above, the challenge of kingship—carrying out justice and mercy—is exemplified through the trials of the wilderness. David participates in Christ’s kingship when he sacrifices personal gain for righteousness. In Fra Angelico’s image, Christ enters Hell as a crowned king—by submitting himself to the realm of death, showing his authority most fully, even over death itself. All of Hell learns that Christ’s freedom rests in His very being as the Light and Life, carrying it with Him even into the wilderness. Kingship remains his unshakeable identity, even among the realm of Satan. Fra Angelico portrays Christ within a mandorla and raising a victory banner. Though his flesh bears the wounds of crucifixion and Fra Angelico includes nails alluding to His passion, those instruments now lie beneath his feet, along with the door of Hell that crushes Satan. The destruction of death, rather than weakening Christ, has destroyed Satan’s power.[18] Not only does Christ remain King even in the context of the wilderness, but he also grants kingship to the prisoners of Hell. Those in Limbo already bear haloes of glory, joining them to Christ’s authority. David is honored with a golden crown, merging with the golden locks of his hair as integral to his former and now redeemed being, to his created form in God. Christ’s mandorla reflects the curve of the doorway above him, demonstrating that the door to death has now become the door to heaven. And those he comes to save, already adorned with haloes, thus portray their identity within Christ’s glory, as created and intended to participate in his Kingship. The lesson of David demonstrates that we can act as kings even through the suffering, rejection, and flight of the wilderness, through taking on the identity of Christ in his mercy, freedom, and obedience to God’s plan.

Within The Gospel of Nicodemus, Christ’s entry is heralded with the rejoicing cry of Psalm 24, when David, after recognizing Christ’s presence in Psalm 23, can now from the midst of the wilderness, recognize that “The earth is the Lord’s” welcoming him, “Lift up your heads, O you gates! And be lifted up, you everlasting doors! And the King of glory shall come in.” (Ps 24:7). All the prisoners of Hell join in this cry.[19] As God had established the Kingdom of Israel in the Old Testament, granting them peace from the fear of the wilderness within the protection of the city walls of Jerusalem, so now he establishes his eternal kingdom by breaking down the prison walls, forming a city with gates that never close, unafraid of any threat of death or rejection.[20] 

Reflecting on Christ’s coming kingdom, now drawing these Old Testament figures upward, Fra Angelico helps his viewers remain ever aware of God’s eternal plan of redemption extending back through time. God redeems man now in the depths, just as he had promised from the original fall of man.[21] He enters the wilderness of Hell, just as he had continually entered the lives of the Israelites throughout the Old Testament. And now, He remains present as we both trust in His past salvific descent to earth and look forward to His future redemption. Worthen describes how, throughout the depictions of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell in art history, narration and symbolism are emphasized, one over the other to a greater or lesser extent–narration points to a single moment in time, while symbolism to something beyond time.[22] He writes that Fra Angelico’s work falls at the transition from more symbolic towards more narratively focused depictions, showing Christ both as a symbol of redemption and as physically present at a narrative moment in Hell. This potential is strengthened, he concludes, through the nature of art itself, which, though formed at one moment in time, is continually experienced and interpreted.[23] Examining the fresco, Fra Angelico does indeed capture both iconographic, symbolic qualities of gold haloes, symbols of the passion, and fixed gestures (such as hands clasped in prayer), along with a narrative sense of instant motion and expression, as the figures are placed mid-step in processing, the demons flee with horrified glances backward, and the ground of Hell cracks.

Now is the Hour of Our Salvation

Fra Angelico, as a result, can invite reflection on Christ’s present salvific gesture in light of salvation history as a whole. Worthen argues that specifically through including figures from across Old Testament history, “their redemption could be considered not only a singular adventure of Christ’s but an integral part of the story of salvation; it could even be stated reason for Christ’s incarnation and passion.”[24] Horizontal time across history is united through its interaction with God’s vertical descent into it. Specific to our discussion, the wilderness is redeemed from endless expanse and wandering to a place of encounter with God. When God breaks into the horizontal, meaningless expanse of our earthly lives, a picture of wilderness that seemingly leads nowhere but toward death, he allows for the possibility of upwards ascent. Balthasar, in his discussion of vertical and horizontal time, captures their intersection in Christ’s incarnation:

The time-transcending point as the point of Christ lies not only “over,” “before,” and “after time,” it transcends it in such a way that it simultaneously contains it. It contains it, however, not in the way that God’s transcendence is immanent in all creatures; rather, by the event of his incarnation, death, and resurrection he has taken time into himself. This descent of the Son into the eternally “beneath” of the earth, in order to ascend from there into the eternally “above” of all the heavens, is the comprehensive measure of all vertical time, that measure within alone every individual reversal of time (conversion) can take place. This is necessary for the establishment of true, fulfilled time.[25]

This interaction between the horizontal and vertical time is captured by Fra Angelico, as the Old Testament figures process out from the cavern and we receive a glance back into horizontal time.

However, simultaneously, their haloes create a unified mass, as their individual histories merge into one common interaction with Christ, their lives joined through its common end within the Body of Christ. Through Christ’s entry downward through the door, through extending his arm into the horizontal cavern, he grasps hold of Adam and draws the figures into his upwards ascent. His motion does not downplay their movement forward out of the cavern, forward through time to the end, but demonstrates the possibility of movement towards Christ to be joined with movement up into Christ. We not only look towards him for salvation but become joined to him in that salvation. And so, looking back to God’s presence in the past and looking forward to his presence in the future, we can place hope in the continuing earthly time we now experience. As Ratzinger writes, “The Easter Jesus is our certainty that history can be lived in a positive way, and that our finite and feeble rational activity has a meaning.”[26]

This point is key to our understanding today of Christ’s redemption of the wilderness. For even now, we experience the feebleness of the dust of Adam, the suffering of Abel, the longing of Moses and John the Baptist, and the abandonment of David. Horizontal time has not yet ended. Instead, Balthasar explains,

This devouring “abyss” of time is not closed by grace. Man dies just the same. Only the sense of time and death is changed. Here the personal dimension of time transcends itself and opens into the social and universal. For grace does not change the meaning of death (and hence of time) from the outside, but rather from the inside, by becoming flesh and descending into death.[27]

Through this understanding of time, we can continue with confidence in the wilderness now aware of the ever-present reality of Christ’s Kingdom that is, was, and is to come (Revelation 1:8). We can experience the cavern of death and Hell itself confident that God will draw us into His loving care.[28] In fact, by allowing his beloved Son to descend to Hell, God confirmed his plan to raise the dead, for as a perfect Father, he never could abandon His very own Son for eternity. Similarly, by placing his Church as his lampstands within the wilderness today, God continually promises His presence to the Earth, for the lampstands are created to carry forth light, to hold the Son of Man in their midst.[29] And so, even more radically, we can choose even to give up our own redeemed lives in God’s love for the sake of others, entering into their suffering and confident that in choosing this descent, just as Christ, we draw God’s promised presence given to us into the realm of death.[30] By moving into another’s wilderness, we bring God’s kingdom into it.

The Word of Life

The ability Christ gives to transform the wilderness into a place of mission aligns with the calling of the Dominicans, the “Order of Preachers.” Discussing the role of Fra Angelico’s frescoes at San Marco, William Hood describes the two primary goals of Dominican monks: “The first of these is the obligation to preach, and this obligation unites the group; the second is the goal of guaranteeing the individual within the group the maximum freedom possible to seek his own path.”[31] Though he concludes, “the first goal is found in the themes of Fra Angelico’s frescoes in the chapter room, refectory, and so on; the second and more personal one is reflected in the cell frescoes.”[32] The “Harrowing of Hell,” while found within the silence and meditation of the cell walls, revolves around the theme of the human relationality within Christ’s Body, there even from the abyss of Hell. In the end, the Word of God entering into the silence of Hell allows the personal words of prayer and the words of the community to become one.

Firstly, Fra Angelico’s work allows the monk to experience both the communion of saints as Christ’s body and the figure of Christ himself. Fra Angelico includes a new Sienese innovation in the depiction of Christ in Hell, eliminating the more traditional “edges of the cavern that, like a proscenium, had separated the viewer from Christ and the just.”[33] Instead, the depiction of hell merges with the space of the room, allowing the monk to imagine his place in and among the saints, with eyes fixed on Christ, hastening towards him.

Throughout Dominican practice, monks were encouraged to meditate on the gestures of Christ and St. Dominic found within art as exemplars for their own lives, “as an introduction to what would become a lifelong habit, namely, the imitation of the order’s exemplar’s of Dominican perfection.”[34] The gestures and movements of the figures within Fra Angelico’s work all exemplify joining with the Body of Christ throughout salvation history, as they mimic Christ’s stance, gracefully leaning forward, and as a joined unit look to him in prayer and hope. By including recognizable figures from salvation history, by highlighting Adam, John the Baptist, Moses, Abel, and David, Fra Angelico does not rank identity, placing one figure over another. Nor does he highlight the importance of establishing individual recognition. Rather, he gives identity to these figures through their relation to Christ’s salvation plan, by contextualizing them within the history of God’s redemption in the Old Testament and within their present relation to his body. And so, we conclude that “relation logically and temporally precedes identity.”[35] We appreciate Adam and David’s identities through their relation to Christ’s being and plan. Only through understanding ourselves within the context of God’s Body does our identity gain true meaning.

The personal space of the cell, as a result, points the monk back out into the community of believers. Though the cell as a space to experience personal prayer and meditation on art forces us in isolation to confront our very selves, it simultaneously allows us to “escape from the prison of our ‘I’, because only in the openness of this universal subject does our gaze open out to the source of joy, to love itself—to God.” And so through experiencing Christ’s presence within the cavern of the cell, the monk is prepared to bring God’s presence into the barren cavern of the world. Hood writes that Dominicans understood that “effective preaching was the fruit of a transformed life–a life, as it were, refined by the gregarious hazard of community on the one hand, and by the solitude of prayerful study on the other.”[36] And so, this fresco, which was located in the cell intended for training lay brothers,[37] allowed the monk to develop eyes that look to Christ and are consequently motivated to form his body through preaching his word.

Similarly, Dyrness argues that the use of art throughout the Old Testament, specifically within the temple, prepares Israel to expect God’s presence and influence within the physical realm, preparing them to confront the divine within the human form of Christ. He describes, “As Hans Urs von Balthasar has pointed out, one of God’s purposes in the Old Testament is to prepare his people for the actual appearance of God in the incarnation, we can see how vital the visible aspect of God’s presence had to be.”[38]

Similarly, for the monk in the cell, seeing the physical form of Christ and using the visual depiction of art as a source of contemplation, allows him to look forward to Christ’s coming as a physical reality. Likewise, in viewing the salvation of the physical bodies of Old Testament figures, the monk can invest salvific hope in the physical bodies of those around him. Finally, in viewing the depicted cavern of hell merging with the cavern of his cell, he can view his physical space in the present as a potential site of salvific action, as a place for his horizontal time to experience the vertical interaction with God touching his own life. The transformative experience of art in bringing the image of God to the physical reality of the cell could give the monk confidence in finding his presence within the barren wilderness of the present world.[39]

An Explosion of Joy

Because Christ has entered the wilderness, all the way to its very depths in Hell itself, we can experience his presence even now before our final union with him on the last day. As described in Meditations on the Life of Christ, another literary source influential for Fra Angelico, Christ’s presence in Hell brings about an explosion of joy in the newfound union with Christ:

The Lord of all visited them as if they were friends and not servants, and stayed with them until dawn on Sunday morning. Reflect on this well, and admire and try to imitate it. The most holy fathers rejoiced at His coming and were full of immense joy...When they perceived His most salutary coming, they joyfully hastened to meet Him.[40]

As a result, beginning in the darkness of Hell, beginning in the reality of death, beginning in the imprisonment of the grave, beginning in the long years of waiting for redemption, we can find joy in the reality of Christ. He remained in Hell until Sunday morning as a friend.

Christ, as the God who has taken on human form, remains in relation and communion with those he has redeemed, as the eternal embodiment of self-giving. To join with Christ, to experience his transformation, we must take on his posture, which ultimately transforms us, as Ratzinger writes, to creatures prepared for heavenly glory: “the glorified Christ stands in a continuous posture of self-giving to the Father. Indeed, he is that self-giving. The paschal sacrifice abides in him as an enduring presence. For this reason, heaven, as our being one with Christ, takes on the nature of adoration.”[41]

In looking towards Christ as exemplar in Fra Angelico’s work, through adoring his salvific act of descent to hell, we experience the heavenly joy of worship. In direct contrast to Christ’s nature, self-interest originally cast man into the abyss of sinful disobedience to God and continually leads us from his glory in pursuit of our own kingship, unable to wait on him in the humility of the dust. When instead we abandon our self-interest, choosing to enter the wilderness for the sake of Christ’s mission, we not only mimic his descent to hell but also experience the joy of heaven found through union with him.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This is part two of two in a series reflecting on Fra Angelico’s fresco, The Harrowing of Hell in San Marco, Florence. The first installment may be found here.

[1] Roberts, “The Power of Patience.”

[2] Worthen, The Harrowing of Hell in the Art of the Italian Renaissance, 17.

[3] Balthasar, “The Fragmentary Nature of Time,” 24.

[4] Eliot, Four Quartets.

[5] International Theological Commission, “Some Current Questions in Eschatology,” 8.2.

[6] God’s mercy in waiting for the day of final redemption is emphasized by Joseph Ratzinger in Section IV of Eschatology: “For you too will wait, just as you are awaited. But if you, who are a member, do not have perfect joy as long as a member is missing, how much more must our Lord and Saviour, who is the head and origin of this body, consider it an incomplete joy if he is still lacking certain of his members? . . . Thus he does not want to receive his perfect glory without you: that means, not without his people which is ‘his body’ and ‘his members’” (Ratzinger, Eschatology, Death, and Eternal Life, 186).

[7] The Book of Revelation ends with this promise of waiting as union with God now, expecting the union of the final day. For the Church receives the presence of the spirit, joining in the cry, “And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” (Rev 22:17). And the knowledge of Christ’s return grants assurance and hope to the final words of John: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming quickly.’ Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).

[8] Though David’s followers interpret this moment of advantage over Saul as the promised deliverance of God, saying “This is the day of which the Lord said to you, ‘Behold, I will deliver your enemy into your hand, that you may do to him as it seems good to you,’” (1 Sam 24:4), David recognizes that the gift of Kingship comes with obedience to the one who has offered it: “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, to stretch out my hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the Lord” (1 Sam 24:6).

[9] Eliot, Four Quartets.

[10] Robinette, Grammars of Resurrection: A Christian Theology of Presence and Absence, 178.

[11] As described in the “Parable of the Lost Sheep” found in Matthew 18:12–14 and Luke 15:3–7.

[12] Psalm 23:4.

[13] Ratzinger, Eschatology, Death, and Eternal Life, 217.

[14] Worthen, The Harrowing of Hell in the Art of the Italian Renaissance, 20.

[15] The Gospel of Nicodemus and Kindred Documents, 101–102.

[16] Ibid., 106.

[17] This point corresponds with Robinette’s argument that Christ must raise the same body claimed by death to truly gain victory. He writes, If the resurrection were only the ejection of a pneumatic body from a coarser physical husk, then the language of victory would make no sense” because through granting life to the physical, he accomplishes the “reversal of death and decay” (Robinette, Grammars of Resurrection: A Christian Theology of Presence and Absence, 157–158).

[18] Philip Almond investigates how Satan’s actions both oppose and conform to God’s will: “God’s all-powerfulness has been guaranteed, but at the expense of his love. This ‘demonic paradox’ of the Devil as both God’s enforcer and his enemy is at the center of the Christian story” (Almond, The Devil: A New Biography, xvii). And so, just as the very weakness of Christ in taking on death highlights his strength, so the strength of Satan over death ultimately highlights his weakness to God’s final will and purpose.

[19] The Gospel of Nicodemus and Kindred Documents, 103.

[20] In Revelation 21, within God’s city, the gates are never shut precisely because there is no longer danger of an enemy: “Its gates shall not be shut at all by day (there shall be no night there). And they shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it. But there shall by no means enter it anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life” (Rev 21: 25–56).

[21] When man originally was cast into the wilderness, God foretold the victory of Christ over Satan: “He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel” (Gen 3:15).

[22] Worthen, The Harrowing of Hell in the Art of the Italian Renaissance, 11.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 21.

[25] Balthasar, “The Fragmentary Nature of Time,” 33.

[26] Ratzinger, Eschatology, Death, and Eternal Life, 214.

[27] Balthasar, “The Fragmentary Nature of Time,” 29.

[28] This point is also emphasized by Ratzinger in “The Resurrection of the Dead and the

Return of Christ,” who writes, “The Christian message expects at one and the same time both decay—in conformity with the way of the cosmos itself, and plenitude—in the new power coming from without, namely, Christ” (Ratzinger, Eschatology, Death, and Eternal Life, 193).

[29] Rev 1:13, 20.

[30] Pope Benedict XVI, Saved in Hope: Spe Salvi.

[31] Hood, Fra Angelico at San Marco, 111.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Worthen, The Harrowing of Hell in the Art of the Italian Renaissance, 122.

[34] Hood, Fra Angelico at San Marco, 117.

[35] Robinette, Grammars of Resurrection: A Christian Theology of Presence and Absence, 167.

[36] Hood, Fra Angelico at San Marco, 119.

[37] Ibid., 127.

[38] Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue, 84.

[39] Dryness writes that art has the power to merge the natural and the supernatural into one: “integrated into the progressive revelation of God’s purposes for the earth, pressed into service as the visible dimension of a transcendent reality” (Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue, 84).

[40] Worthen, The Harrowing of Hell in the Art of the Italian Renaissance, 127.

[41] Ratzinger, Eschatology, Death, and Eternal Life, 234.

Featured Image: Paul Hippolyte Flandrin, Fra Angelico Visited by the Angels, 1894; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Laura Richter

Laura Richter is a graduate student at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts specializing in paintings conservation. She holds her BA in Art History from the University of Notre Dame (Class of 2020) where she completed her thesis on the material analysis of a medieval reliquary bust.

Read more by Laura Richter