Scenarios of the “Descent into Hell” in Two Processional Antiphons


Events in Christ’s experience during the three-day interim between his descent to hell and reappearance “according to the scriptures” can only be speculated upon. Yet, Easter processional antiphons relate passages in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus and a sermon spuriously assigned to Augustine of Hippo that allege what transpired. One such antiphon, the tenth-century Cum Rex gloriae, was incorporated into a later medieval paradramatic commemoration of Christ’s Descensus in the Elevatio crucis “Harrowing of Hell” that preserved the legend. Cum Rex had established itself earliest in graduals Europe-wide purely as an Easter ante-mass processional chant, but circulated this pre-Easter encounter of Christ with the prince of darkness. Closely related in theme and text is another Easter antiphon, Cum descendisset Dominus, a unicum appearing in the Beneventan processioner of St. Dominic of Sora now in the Vatican ms, Reginensis latinum 334. Through these antiphons’ texts and music the present article reveals motifs synonymous with or associated with hell, like “Tartara,” “daemones,” and “diabolus” and the scenario narrated by Nicodemus and received by pseudo-Augustinus. Results point toward a musical-liturgical-dramatic formulation in the Descensus through discourse rooted in and quoted from the Vulgate Psalm 23.

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