Dom Alex Echeandía, OSB: "This blog reflects on what many people ask about God and His image. In a way, it focuses on questions like: How should art depict the relationship between man and God? How can art best express eternal values? Can you, and should you, portray the face of Christ? For many centuries these were some of the questions which taxed the minds of the greatest artists of Western Christianity. For Eastern Christianity, the sacred icons make that connection between God and man in Christ, the perfect and ideal Image of God: Imago Dei."

Christ Pantocrator Icon at Belmont Abbey

Talk given at Belmont on Saturday 26th July 2014

This finished icon is one that Fr Dyfrig started. In fact I have used his drafts in order to produce what you see here in the Church. The drafts that Fr Dyfrig used are based on the Christ Pantocrator, Saviour and Giver of Life, of XIV century Greek origin, and which is placed now in the Museum of Macedonia, Yugoslavia.  This turn was base, as another icon of Christ Pantocrator from Sinai.

Before I start to explain the meaning and symbolism contained in this icon, let start by saying what an icon is. Etymologically, an icon is translated from the Greek as “image”. Therefore, this icon of Christ is, per excellence, the icon of God, the Image of the Father. The reason why we make icons is because God became man. As Irenaeus said, the Word become one of us in order that we may become like Him. Therefore, images of Our Lady and the Saints find their prototype in Christ, the Image of God Invisible. We find here in the Abbey church a lot of images of Christ, saints and angels, quite a lot I may say. They are made from stone, glass, wood or other materials. The reason why we make these images is because of the Incarnation. Iconoclasts and other people who based their understanding in the Old Testament don’t consider the turning point of our faith, that God became man in Christ.

A sacred icon comes to people in three ways. First, as with any other work of art, the icon attracts your eyes by the beauty it offers. As Fyodor Dostoevsky said, beauty will conquer the world. It is towards beauty that our minds and hearts are attracted. We say that a piece of music or a work of art is beautiful. The eyes and ears are the most sensitive senses we have. Therefore, images need to offer something of beauty to attract our attention.

However, an icon is not simply a work of art. It offers a profound spiritual richness that only comes by contemplating it. As iconogrpahers we are called to be instrument of the Holy Spirit which is why we don’t put our names on top of the image represented. We are not the authors. We believe that it is Christ and His mother, and saints who come to us in order to be represented. I am sure you have heard of an icon functioning as a window through which the saint comes to the viewer. However, one may say that the icon works as a door through which we can encounter God, Our Lady and the Saints and they can encounter us. We can journey into the mystery by contemplating an icon. This is what the faithful, especially among the Eastern Churches, believe is happening. This is why an icon is always flat because it is in direct relation with the viewer.  

The third way in which an icon is seen by the faithful is from a theological perspective. The First Council of the Church at Nicaea confirmed that Christ is the visible and perfect Image of the Father. However, during the following centuries the Church struggled against heresies related to Christ’s two natures, either denying the divine nature (Arians) or the human nature (monophysites). Finally at Chalcedon it was declared that Christ was fully human and fully divine, and He Himself embodied the union of two natures, human and divine. This icon of Christ, God-Man, is a graphic expression of the dogma of Chalcedon, for it represents the Divine Person incarnated, the Son of God became the Son of Man, Divine as the Father and human like us.

The icon of Christ the Pantocrator becomes a very important key to understand this relationship of Christ as fully human and fully divine. The danger of considering only one part of this relationship, leaving out the other part, was so understood during the iconoclastic period. The argument in favour of iconodules was based on the person of Jesus Christ, arguing that through the Incarnation images of the Son of God and His saints are possible in the Church.

As I said at the beginning of this talk, icons of Christ Pantocrator go back to the one in Sinai. In fact, the oldest example of this kind is the sixth century icon in the Monastery of St Catherine in the Sinai desert. The well-known Icon of “Christ of Sinai” was probably written at Constantinople, using the encaustic technique. This technique consisted in mixing wax with pigment and applying the mixture on the wooden panel already covered with gesso. The wax medium was replaced in later centuries by the yolk of eggs, a technique seen in icons nowadays. This encaustic technique came originally from Egypt. Examples can be seen in the portraits made for the mummies. One may go to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford or the National Gallery in London, and appreciate the images placed on top of the mammies with the portrayals which represented the person inside the sarcophagus. The same technique is used in the image of Christ Pantocrator at the museum of St Catherine´s Monastery, Sinai.

The word Pantocrator comes from a composed word Panto-crator. The word “panto” is the genitive of pantos (all), meaning “of all”, and “crator” (power, rule) is the participle present of “cratos” which means ruler, the one in power. It is also interpreted as the One who embraces the whole of humanity, the One who maintains all things.

The Icon of Christ Pantocrator we see here at the Abbey Church shows facial characteristics of the adult Jesus. It expresses the reality of the Incarnation of the Son of God, the True Image of the Father that The Gospel of John proclaims in the prologue. The image of God Invisible that become one of us. St Ireneus said, “The Son of God become the Son of Man, so that man might become son of God.” Jesus Christ is the Image of the Father revealed to us for our salvation. Therefore, the Image of Christ Pantocrator is the image per excellence that gives meaning to all images.

This icon, as with all the sacred icons, is embedded with theological symbolism. As said before, the viewer can simply admire it at the basic level of beauty that captures our attention. However, the symbolism of the icon goes deeper than that for it brings into closer relationship the one who contemplates it to the the person depicted, to Christ, Our Mother, and all the Saints. In this way, the icon acts as a door rather than a window. We can look through a window at those depicted but the relationship is, in a way, impersonal. However, if the icon is seen as a door, that one can go through as well as the saint can come to us, the relationship becomes more personal.

As we look at the icon we can see its powerful background which is  of real gold. This half-length image of Christ is enveloped in light represented by the gold. Images of Christ in this form are founded in ninth century Psalters, particularly placed near the words: “Shine on us, Lord, the light of your face”. Moreover, one of the oldest Russian icons of this type (XII and XIII century) called the Saviour with Golden Hair in the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow, Christ is called King of Glory, as the inscription tells us. Therefore, gold is not defined by a particular colour, but contains all the colours as it acts by the reflection of the light. It recalls the divine light that shines through the icon and tells us that we are encountering the divine.

The image that is surrounded by gold is simple and almost symmetrical, the face is compact with a certain softness and appears brighter. Nevertheless, the wide-open, asymmetrical eyes gaze beyond the confines of place and time. Christ´s left eye is bigger than the other, and his left eyebrow is raised higher that the other. It offers the identity of God: justice and mercy. They are composed in a way that becomes harmonious, as the Psalm 85:10: “righteousness and peace kiss each other.”  In this imposing image of Christ there is a close relationship with biblical reproaches and prophetic exhortations addressed in the Church by means of preaching and teaching. We hear God in the Scriptures: “Cease to do evil and learn to do good.” This biblical severity and directness is represented in Jesus’ left-side face. Christ is presented as King and Heavenly Judge. He indeed rules with justice. In fact, the big, open eyes give a theological message, he who created the world never sleeps, but rather watches over it and saves it.  As the Psalm 12 says, the Lord will keep your going and coming now and for ever.

Icons try to answer the question of who Jesus is. As it is seen in the two sides of the face, Jesus Christ appears as the Revelation of God. Christ is seen as the merciful face of the Father. Christ said, “He that sees me, sees Him who sent me” (John 12:45). Jesus Pantocrator expresses the strength and authority of God. Christ the Judge is tempered by the Saviour’s merciful face. “You are the fairest of the children of men” (Psalm 45). In Christ, justice and mercy, truth and peace, are reconciled. This is the relation of a divine humanity.  Christ is at once Lord of the universe and the prototype of a transfigured humanity. The iconographic type of Christ-Pantocrator expresses under the human features of the Incarnate Son, the Divine Majesty of the Creator and Redeemer, who presides over the destiny of the world.

That strength and majesty is also seen in the nose and neck. The long, narrow and straight nose underscores a firmness of mind and will. The small, closed mouth stands for silence and inner strength. The thick neck expresses the fullness of the breath of the Holy Spirit. The beard is a fine filigree shading the face. The well-marked lines of the eyebrows and moustache express a strong sense of pity and loving judgement of the world. It shows the transfigured flesh of Him who suffered for us. The thick, gathered hair frames the face, then falls in loose braids onto the left shoulder, suggesting a slight turn of the shoulders. His hair also recalls the tree strands which place in its centre the face of our Lord. As a tree it suggests paradise, and symbolises Jesus as the Tree of Life and the New Adam. The large detailed eyes, turned towards the onlooker, have an attentive and saddened look which seems to penetrate the depths of consciences. Christ is come into the world not to condemn, but to save it (John 3). The flesh tones, like in the Icon of Sinai, is a result of a perfect balance between naturalism and mystical transfiguration; it is, the richness of His humanity and divinity. 

The halo bears the mark of the cross and the letters O, Ω, N (omicron, omega and nu) stand for the holy name revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai; “I am that I am”, “The Being”, “The One that is. Christ is God that comes to meet his people. Moreover, on the same gold the name of Jesus Christ abbreviated is place in Greek. The abridged name of Jesus Christ IC XC (above, on our icon) designates the person of the Incarnate Son. A name in an icon makes it a proper icon; it gives its identity.  Therefore, it is obligatory for inscriptions of the name to appear on all icons of Christ, of the Mother of God, and all the saints.

Christ Pantocrator is shown holding the Gospel Book in his left hand. The Book of the Gospel symbolises the new law given to humankind, as well as the “Book of Life” mentioned in the Apocalypse (Rev 4). It is adorned with precious blue and red stones. Christ´s right hand is in a position of blessing the world. The fingers of the hand are gathered to symbolise Christ’s two natures.  The ring finger and thumb are united to symbolize the two natures of Jesus Christ, which only Him has obtained. Jesus is truly human and truly divine, the heavenly world has met the human world in Jesus.

He wears a green cloak and a red tunic, aspects of Christ´s two natures, human and divine. As Pope Leo the great states in his text about God’s humanity and divinity: “If you want to know who you are, look not to what you have been, but to the image that God had I creating you. In Him there is all His godliness, and all our humanity.”

As we can see, the theme of Jesus´s identity goes through the whole icon and teaches the faithful about Jesus Christ, Son of God. Thus, the icon becomes first of all a door where God and His saints encounter His people by the beauty it offers and by the teaching about Divine Mystery. If we approach to icons with faith a bit of that mystery will be revealed to the one who contemplates it, in order approach to God, not simply with the mind and the theological teaching it offer, but more profoundly with the eye of the heart that transports the viewer into God Himself.

Finally, I want to thank for the expressions of charity and care given by those who contributed to this icons. I know many people gave a lot of gold leaves and other materials to finish the work that began time ago, from the drafts Fr Dyfrig had. It was very sad to see him depart from us bodily by his sudden death two years ago. We know now that he is very pleased by the acts of love everybody have shown to the point that today this icon has been blest. Now this icon of Christ Pantocrator of Belmont together with the other icon of Our Lady of Tenderness will be used to our prayer and a place of encounter with our Lord and God and all His Saints.

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