Christ the High Priest

(Romania; eighteenth century)

Romania; half of the eighteenth century; 66.5 x 45.5 cm


The iconography of Christ the High Priest first appears in the fifteenth century, after the fall of Constantinople, and exists in two ways of depiction. The first type is a depiction of Christ sitting on a throne, with a blessing right hand and an open book on his left knee. What is different from the icons of Pantocrator, or the icons of Christ on the throne, is the episcopal robe: stichar, sakos, often decorated with crosses placed in circles, omophore and mitre. Sometimes a bishop's mace (stick) is added. The description of this type of icon includes its name – to the left of the nimbus of Christ is the Church Slavonic inscription Царь Царей, King of Kings, and on the right Великий Архиерей, Grand High Priest. The second mode of depiction is similar to the previous one, the only difference being that Christ is depicted up to the waist without the depicted throne and He is clothed in the episcopal robes.

The content of the icon of Christ the High Priest and its clarification is based mainly on the letter of the Holy Apostle Paul to the Hebrews, in which, from chapters 3 to 10 in particular, the image of Christ as High Priest is pointed out. Christ's ministry as Heavenly High Priest is based on God's universal plan to care for man's salvation. Like every priest, He offers a redemptive sacrifice to God the Father for the sins of mankind, but with the difference that He is the sacrifice himself: “... You yourself bring them and are brought, You receive them and you are given yourself ...” in this way the priest says a prayer before making sacrificial offerings while singing the “Cherub Song”. Speaking before God for all people, Christ stands out among them as the High Priest. It is not, however, He Himself who took the glory of being the High Priest, but the One who told Him, “You are My Son, Today I have begotten You.” (Hebrews 5:5)

“Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus, who was faithful to Him who appointed Him...” (Hebrews 3:1-2) “Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:14-15) “For every high priest taken from among men is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness. 3 Because of this he is required as for the people, so also for himself, to offer sacrifices for sins. And no man takes this honor to himself, but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He who said to Him: “You are My Son, Today I have begotten You.” As He also says in another place: “You are a priest forever According to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:1-6)

“And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:11-14)

Description of the icon

Christ is sitting on a richly decorated Baroque throne, dressed as a bishop. Like in the icons of Christ on the throne, Christ is also sitting here on two pillows of red and dark blue colour, as a symbol of two natures – the Divine and the human. He has a mitre on his head, decorated with silver leaves. Mitre, gr. µίτρα, Russian митра, is a sign of the crown or kidar, the headwear of the Old Testament high priests. The mitre symbolizes the crown of thorns of the Saviour and is a sign of the high dignity which the bishop has acquired from Christ himself for the performance of sacred acts and the distribution of gifts in holy mysteries. The mitre on the icon overlaps the vertical arm of the cross and the Greek letter Ѡ in the nimbus. The remaining two Greek letters Ѻ N are written on the horizontal arm of the cross. At the top of the icon is a monogram of Jesus Christ IC XC on a gold background on the sides of the nimbus. His serious facial expression and thoughtful look only complete the overall portrayal of the Saviour as a strict and just judge, king and high priest. Long brown strands of hair flow to his shoulders.

Another part of Christ the High Priest's clothing is a red long-sleeved sakkos. Sakkos, Greek σάκκος, Russian саккось, which means a sack. The garment of sakkos, i. e. the attire as a sack, is a major part of the episcopal garment, which the bishop puts on as a stichar like the priest puts on phelonion (Greek φαιλόνιον). It is similar to the western dalmatic in a way. At the time this robe was introduced into the Church, it was considered a great honour, worn only by the patriarchs who received it from the emperors, and only on the three great feasts of the year: the Nativity of Christ, the Passover and the Fiftieth day. According to St. Simeon of Thessaloniki, sakkos is a symbol of the robe in which they clothed Christ and at which they laughed during his suffering. A Stichar decorated with ornaments from beneath the sakkos protrude at the bottom of the icon. A Stichar (Greek στιχάριον, Russian стихарь) is a long linen or silk liturgical garment, sewn as a long, ankle-length tunic, used not only by deacons, but also by priests or bishops. These differ only in that the diaconal stichar has wider sleeves, and conversely, the priestly and episcopal stichar has narrower sleeves. In the environment of the Western Church, the alba corresponds to this garment. Christ the High Priest on the icon has an omophorion draped over his shoulders – a white strip of cloth over both shoulders connected at his chest, falling to the ground, with three dark crosses. Omophorion, Greek ωμοφόριο, comes from two Greek words ὦμος – shoulder and φέρω – I wear, Russian омофор, нараменник, is exclusively a bishop's garment, which the bishop puts on both shoulders, which corresponds to the very naming of this part of the episcopal garment. Due to its significance, the omophorion is the most important garment of worship for the bishop, without which no sacred act can be celebrated. The oldest testimony of the meaning and mission of the omophorion comes from St. Isidore Pelusiotsky, who speaks of what the omophorion is and what it symbolizes: “The omophorion of the bishop, woollen not linen, represents the wool of the lost sheep that the Lord found and placed on his shoulders. “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” (Luke 15:4-5) “The bishop, as the image of Christ, carries out the work of Christ and by his robes shows to all that he is like a good and great shepherd, because he is ordained to bear the burden of grazing.” Another, symbolic interpretation of the omophorion is provided by St. Simeon of Thessaloniki: “Omophorion is a bishop's honour placed on the shepherd of Christ's sheep. Omophorion is a symbolic expression of the incarnation of the God of the Word, who having found us, the lost sheep, carried us on his shoulders. Since Christ took on human nature, united us with himself and underwent the cross and death for us and our salvation, crosses are found in the omophorion.”

Under the feet of Christ, the earth is symbolically depicted in the form of an oval footstool in a dark green shade. Christ is giving blessings with a raised right hand and holding an open Gospel on his left leg with his left one with the text: “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 25:34) He has a girdle, a rectangular piece of cloth with the image of a six-winged seraphim in the middle and decorated with tassels on the corners, on his right hip. The girdle, Greek επιγονάτιο, comes from two Greek words – ἐπί, meaning “up”, and γόνυ, knee; in Russian набедренник, it is part of the Byzantine sacral garment in the form of a four-sided stiff cloth decorated by tassels. It is hung on one of the four tips on the belt, on the right hip, hence the Slavic name. Similar to the sword of a warrior, it symbolises a spiritual sword. In addition to the bishop, by appointment of a bishop it is also obtained by meritorious priests of higher rank, such as protopresbyters, hegumens or archimandrites, as a sign of honour and participation in ecclesiastical power. The depiction of cherubs and seraphim on the girdles in icons has appeared since the seventeenth century.

In connection with this icon of Christ the High Priest, which comes from Romania, it is important to point out that if the icon is compared with the icons in north-east Slovakia, south-east Poland, western Ukraine and north-east Hungary, located in wooden or brick churches, or in museum collections, a great analogy can be found among them. This only confirms the fact that there were mutual influences in this region, which manifested themselves in the individual periods from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries.