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  • Scenarios of the “Descent into Hell” in Two Processional Antiphons
  • Clyde W. Brockett (bio)

Despite the importance of the other events of Holy Week and Easter, the biblical account gives only scant reference to what transpired during the three-day interim between Crucifixion and Resurrection. There are mainly ambiguous affirmations of Christ’s descensus in 1 Peter 3:19–20, Matthew 27:52, and Hebrews 2:14–15, the latter verses referring to his participating in death “that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.”1 However, early belief in the historicity of the event by the Church developed by the third century and eventually was to be incorporated into the Apostles’ Creed, which includes the “he descended into hell” clause.2 The account is only given full treatment in a fourth-century addition to the apocryphal Acts of Pilate. The expanded work, generally known as the Gospel of Nicodemus, was attributed to the devoted follower of Christ, though not one of the twelve disciples, who assisted Joseph of Arimathea in the Burial (see John 19:39–40). Thereafter, a late fourth-century or early fifth-century sermon formerly attributed to St. Augustine, now identified only as Pseudo-Augustine, likewise chose to use as a biblical authority the words of Psalm 23 (Vulgate numbering).3 This Sermo CLX, vividly recounting the happenings of the descensus in infernum, gained wide exposure through liturgy and music in early medieval churches. Despite its considerable potential, it was only to be incorporated into liturgical drama in the late Elevatio, as in the instance of the innovations of Katherine of Sutton at Barking in the late fourteenth century.4 In earlier centuries, there was good reason to believe that it could develop and serve as a separate ceremony for Holy Saturday. However, in spite of its failure to so develop, the [End Page 301] processional antiphons that I shall discuss here deserve to be of considerable interest to students of the medieval music drama.

I. The Narrative and Its Reception in the West

The Gospel of Nicodemus and Sermo CLX present a vivid descensus narrative by means of incorporating an Old Testament authority, Psalm 23 (Vulgate numbering; Psalm 24 AV). The psalmist’s text became the substance of Christ’s thundering challenge—“Atollite portas principes vestras et elevamini portas eterale et introibit rex glorie”—to the powers of darkness, who reinforce the iron bars holding shut the brass gates of the underworld. As the Gospel of Nicodemus describes the event, Christ calls out: “Remove, O princes, your gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in.”5 At the third repetition of the shout by the one in the narrative who is distinguished by carrying a cross over his shoulder, the infernal powers inquire “Who is the King of glory?” (Quis est iste rex gloriae?). David, from Limbo, identifies the voice as that of “the Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle, he is the King of glory.” The hitherto indestructible bonds of hell are smashed, and Christ “appeared in the form of a man and lightened the eternal darkness.” The devils, in their confusion, question further, at last wondering if he is “that Jesus, of whom Satan our prince said that by thy death on the cross thou shouldest receive dominion of the whole world.” Thereupon “did the King of glory in his majesty trample upon death, and laid hold on Satan the prince and delivered him unto the power of Hell, and drew Adam to him unto his own brightness.”6

The prolix, even rhapsodic prayers of the Gallican rite affirm the theological contextuality of the descensus in which the same humanitatis genitor, Adam, is named as the one extracted “from depths of infernal dirt” by Christ, the one “who descended” as the agent of this blessed release. The following quotation presents the Holy Week prayer and collect from the Gallican Missale Gothicum (c.700):

Item Orationes in Biduana Die Sabbati Die S...


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