Christ Pantocrator

(Russia; nineteenth century)

Russia; nineteenth century; 85 x 68.3 cm


Christ is, as the Holy Apostle Paul writes, “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible... All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.” (Colossians 1:15-17) This text of St. Paul, which served defenders of the holy icons as the main argument in the struggle against their opponents in the period of iconoclasm, is similar to a reference to the icon of Pantocrator, pointing to the epiphany (ἐπιφάνεια, manifestation, striking appearance) of a supersensible God who has accepted a face similar to ours. Everything that exists in both the earthly and heavenly worlds fully depends on Him, because as the Holy Apostle and the Evangelist John writes, “All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made...” (John 1:3). Christ is therefore the creator of the world together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and this understanding of creation is also the origin of the Greek name Παντοκράτωρ, Church Slavonic Вседержи́тель – Omni-ruler. The icon of the Pantocrator not only shows us God as a strict Omni-ruler and Judge, but also reveals to us another dimension of God, this being his mercy. In Pantocrator's depictions, both of these dimensions are therefore reflected, but in individual periods the emphasis was more on one or the other of them.

The icon of Christ Pantocrator (Omni-ruler), before being placed on the iconostasis, was located as a mosaic in the central dome of the temple to point to the rule of Christ as the Ruler of heaven and earth. This fact is clearly documented by the mosaic of Christ Pantocrator from the eleventh century, located in the dome of the Greek temple in Daphne. In the mosaic, Christ has a strict, threatening appearance and becomes the Ruler of the universe, who will come to judge the living and the dead. He has a closed book with the rules of heavenly life in his left hand, while giving blessings with the right one. In icons where the book is open, the most frequent quotes are: Matthew 7:1-2; John 8:12; John 11:25-26. In Russia, such icons of Pantocrator, dating from the fourteenth century, where the Saviour is depicted only up to the shoulders with a penetrating, stern look, were given the characteristic name “Saviour with an angry look”, in Church Slavonic “Я́рое о́ко.”

At the turn of the fifteenth century, Pantocrator loses his menacing expression and, with a face radiating a certain goodness, gazes out at the believers gathered in the temple. This change is even more noticeable on icons, where inscriptions such as “Saviour of Souls”, “Giver of Life”, “Merciful”, “God's Wisdom” are added... and finally the quotes from the Gospel in the book that Jesus is holding in his left hand speak of the love of God: Mt 11:29; Mt 25:34; Jn 10:9; Jn 13:34. During the times of Andrei Rublev (1360 - 1430), a monk and the greatest Russian iconographer, such a composition of Pantocrator was widely acknowledged in Russia, where Pantocrator – Judge became Saviour – “Loving humankind”.

The Icon of Christ Pantocrator is one of the main types of iconography of Christ, dating back to Byzantium from the fourth to the sixth centuries. The oldest preserved icon depicting Christ up to the waist dates back to the sixth century and is located in the Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai. Icons depicting Christ as a whole figure, whether sitting on a throne or standing, appear later. The depiction of Christ in mandorla, or in glory, in the midst of the heavenly powers, was not all that widespread in Byzantine art. It became popular as of the fifteenth century, especially in the Russian environment, from where it spread to other countries. In Russia, this composition of Christ Pantocrator was placed on iconostasis on the Deesis level, known in Russia as Спас в Силах – the Saviour in the midst of the heavenly powers. The icon of Christ Pantocrator is most often found in the iconostasis to the right of the royal door of the iconostasis from the viewer's point of view and to the left of the icon of the Virgin Mary with the child Christ (Hodigitria or Eleusa). This placement is a symbolic expression of two aspects of salvation – temporary and eternal, historical and eschatological, earthly birth from the Virgin, and reign – eternal rule in heavenly glory.

A characteristic feature of the icons of Christ Pantocrator is the depiction either up to the shoulders or to the waist, or as a whole figure, with a blessing right hand and holding an open or closed book in the left one, and rarely depicted with a scroll in his hand. The head of Christ is blazed with a nimbus, in which a cross is depicted, commemorating his sacrifice on the cross. Three Greek letters “Ѻ Ѡ N” “I am who I am” are written on the cross, which in the depiction of Christ are identified with the name Yahweh in the Old Testament, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush on Sinai. Based on this description, Christ is the God of the covenant, just as Yahweh in the Old Testament.

As concerns the garment of Christ Pantocrator, his outer garment is called himation and the undergarment is chiton. Himation is the upper mantle of Christ of a blue colour, while the undergarment chiton (tunic) is red, sometimes dark red. The union of these two garments of blue and red is a symbol of the unification of the two natures of Christ, both divine and human. The red colour was a symbol of divinity and the blue of humanity in Byzantium. The right shoulder of Christ’s chiton is decorated with a so-called clavus, which is actually a sewn vertical strip of fabric of golden colour, which was a symbol of the difference of the Roman rulers. In the iconography of Christ, the clavus is a symbol of the purity and perfection of the human nature of Christ and also a sign of the Messianic mission of the Saviour. A sewn-on strip of fabric can be found, however, not only in the iconography of Christ, but also in the apostles, where the clavus is a symbol of their proclamation of God's word. 

The book that Christ Pantocrator is holding in his left hand, as mentioned above, can be depicted both in the form of a scroll and in the form of a codex, i. e. a book, either open or closed. The book itself is not only a reference to the joyful news of the Gospel and the teachings of Christ on earth, but also the iconographic meaning of the depicted book is much broader and contains more meanings. The book in the hand of Christ is the Book of Life, in which the names of the saved are written. It is also the book mentioned in Revelation by the Holy Apostle and the Evangelist John, the book sealed with seven seals, as evidenced by both the New and Old Testaments (cf. Exodus 32:32-33; Revelation 5:1-8). Finally, the book is also a symbol of the Gospel itself, with the New Testament quotations from Scripture.

The arrangement of the fingers of the blessing right hand of Christ is not accidental, it has its own symbolism and meaning. The fingers form the monogram of Jesus Christ – IC XC (Church Slavonic Іисусь Христось, Greek Ιησούς Χριστός). The outstretched index finger indicates the letter I, the third finger (middle finger) forms the letter C with its slight bend, the thumb crossed with the fourth finger (ring finger) forms X and the last fifth (little finger) forms C with its bend. This monogram of Jesus Christ can be found either on the upper part in the corners or on the sides of the Saviour's head.

Icon description

The icon depicts Christ up to the waist, with the blessing right hand raised in the middle of the chest. The Saviour is holding an open Gospel with a Church Slavonic text by his left hand: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart...” (Matthew 11:28-29). He is clothed in red chiton and dark blue himation. The facial expression looks young and calm, which is also due to the fact that the beard and moustache are not thick but relatively thin. His hair is arranged in harmonious lines, and wavy at the neck and shoulders on the right from the viewer's point of view. There is the monogram of Jesus Christ IC XC on the sides of the nimbus in circles and under the nimbus and there is the name of the icon Господъ Всєдєржитєлъ - Omni-ruler above the shoulders of the Saviour. In the cross nimbus there are the Greek letters Ѡ Ѻ N.