This 14th-century folio from an unknown Armenian manuscript depicts the women at the tomb and Jesus’ descent into Limbo. The two scenes are presented side by side to show both the scriptural foundations and the spiritual tradition that has emerged around the events of Holy Saturday.
On the top half of the scene, we see the women, whom Luke names as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, approaching Jesus’ tomb and carrying spices. They walk past the guards attending the tomb, a detail imported from the Gospel of Matthew. Rather than a rock-hewn tomb with a stone cover, the tomb we find here is part of an ornate architectural edifice, a church, as indicated by the cross on its main dome. Perhaps a reference to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the symbolism could also refer to the broader Christian tradition of churches built upon the tombs of saints. In the broadest sense, the symbolism tells us a deep truth, that the space where Jesus Christ is entombed is sacred space, because this is the place where God has made the impossible possible, conquering Death itself to make way for eternal life.
In light of this truth, we spot a decorated rectangular sarcophagus, in which we see the shroud of Christ, but no body. An angel in dazzling white stands next to the open sarcophagus and points down in explanation: he is not here. His hands also direct us to the scene below, a bridge from Scripture to the spiritual tradition to continue the story.
In the lower scene, Christ is face-to-face with Adam, taking his hand and leading him out of a dark hole, the place of the dead. Christ conquers Death not just for himself, but for all of humankind. He begins with the very first human, Adam, and all who have awaited the fullness of eternal life since creation. Meeting Adam, Christ takes on the role here of the New Adam, the Risen One who is the firstborn of the new creation and who paves the way for all of us to have eternal life.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans.