The First Sunday of Advent Icon of Christ Pantocrator
"Behold the heavenly king will come with power and great glory to save the nations. Alleluia."
First psalm antiphon from the Office of Readings for the First Sunday of Advent
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This early sixth century icon from St Catherine's monastery, Sinai, Egypt, is considered to be the oldest depiction of Christ Pantocrator ("All Sovereign" or "Lord of Armies"). Also known as "The Blessing Christ", the large and impressive encaustic (coloured pigments suspended in beeswax) on panel, 84 cm x 45.5 cm x 1.2 cm, is a highly precious survivor of Byzantine Iconoclasm (the War of Images, 726-843 AD).
Trimmed at the sides and top and painted on a thin panel, the icon was likely to have been made for magisterial display in the Sinai basilica where, when seen by flickering candlelight, the warm tones and surface of the beeswax medium lent itself to portraying the humanity and flesh of Christ. At the base of the icon paint has been worn away from fifteen hundred years of hands and lips giving veneration (proskynesis) in prayer.
Full face to the viewer with his right hand raised in blessing and a large ornamented Gospel Book held by his left, the Sinai Christ wears the purple cloak (himation), tunic (chiton) and vertical stripe (clavus), with barely visible gold striations, of a Byzantine emperor. Whilst this image is commonly termed "Pantocrator" (a term first used in the ninth century) a later inscription can be seen above Christ's right shoulder, "Philanthropos" (Lover of Humankind). Both terms are helpful for our meditation on the icon.
Christ fills the panel and appears to be caught moving out towards the viewer and away from an architectural background that recedes into the distance. This ambiguity of distance is accentuated by the graded blue-grey tones of the illusionist background juxtaposed by his powerful three-dimensional body. The viewing dynamic is upwards towards Christ's painstakingly modelled face that is highlighted and strengthened by the painterly rendering of thick black hair and chestnut beard and so draws the viewing gaze magnetically towards his face and eyes. Christ's sensitively-fingered hand is raised to bless and almost reach out and touch the viewer whilst his face appears still and timeless. Icon painters placed most attention on the face and eyes and as we gaze steadily into the luminous softness of light contours on Christ's face he comes to greet us. Both as all-sovereign judging Lord and as our merciful saviour. His face is lit high from the right from a single light source suggestive of late afternoon which is perhaps a metaphor for the time to finally take stock of our lives and when we most need a new beginning.
The spatial ambiguity within the panel effects an image of eternity that is heightened and given depth through the dark-rimmed gold of Christ's nimbus (halo), that symbolises the brightness of his divinity and majesty, together with the eight-pointed stars in the two corners of the upper register. The stars communicating that here, now, TODAY, is the Morning Star (Rev 22:16), born under the ever-shining Star of Bethlehem (Matt 2:9), who will give his life for us. Hence the presence of the large cruciform gold nimbus stamped with rosettes. Both rosettes and the dark grey-blue arc of Christ's nimbus echo features from the Sinai apse mosaic of the Transfiguration and so emphasise that this is the Christ of Mount Tabor who, though emblazoned in glory, lived on earth and understands our ordinary human lives. Streaming from Christ's nimbus is the Uncreated Light of the Divine energies pouring from the darkness of God. The iconography shouts out: "He is the Lord of Lords and King of Kings" (1Timothy 6:15).
Looking up into the face of the Sinai Christ I ask myself if this Advent I dare risk beginning again to discover my own truest and deepest self? His face, sensitively revealed through the careful brushwork of light and dark ochres, together with fine white highlights on his forehead and around his eyes, invites me to trust him. This is maybe the time to let go of the security of my possessions, hopes and plans and allow myself to be looked at and loved by Christ. One of the challenges of being me, sensitive to what I know and insensitive or fearful of what I don't know, is my fear of the unknown. And yet my constant longing is to be taken beyond what the small and divided "I" in me thinks it knows or understands and to be drawn into the eternal mystery of God.
Most notable is the strong asymmetry of the icon. Christ is turned to the right and yet looks down towards us full frontally. His eyes look out with differing expressions, the right eye peaceful and gentle whilst the left eye expresses an unsettling tension. His generous mouth is similarly conveying both tender mercy and authority and power. Why? Severe judge or benevolent saviour? This is the Christ of the Second Coming whose features are described by a later Byzantine viewer:
"His eyes, to those who have achieved a clear understanding, are gentle and friendly and instill the joy of contrition in the souls of the pure in heart . . . to those, however, who are condemned by their own judgement, (the eyes) are scornful and hostile and boding of ill".
During Advent we await Christ's Second Coming and recall the prophet Joel powerfully compelling us to put on sackcloth and lament less the destruction of the Lord comes upon us as a great and powerful army (1:13-15, 2:1-2). I know in my truest self that this is the time to start again the life-long learning to love the shadows that I hate and fear and so project onto others. The Sinai Christ encourages me to trust the deeper meaning of judgement and compassion. His is the face of Christ the Good Samaritan who shows mercy and; "moved with pity . .(says) 'take care of him and when I come back I will pay you more than you have spent'"(Lk 10: 29-37). This Sinai Christ does not speak of the Second Coming of a severe and vengeful God.
The face of the Sinai Christ in some way mirrors our own interior face and calls us by our unique name this Advent to discern the self we have been freely given. The apostle Paul's extraordinary insight into the judgement and mercy of the Word of God reveals to us the clarity of Christ's gaze: "The Word of God is something alive and active: it cuts like any double-edged sword but more finely: it can slip through the place where the soul is divided from the spirit, or joints from the marrow; it can judge the secret emotions and thoughts. No created thing can hide from him; everything is uncovered and open to the eyes of the one to whom we must give account of ourselves" (Hebrews 4:12-13). And we give account of ourselves to Divine Love and infinite mercy, to Christ the Good Samaritan.
"Holy Image and Hallowed Ground. Icons from Sinai", St Catherine's Monastery, Sinai. "Paradox and Perception in Orthodox Iconography", Fr Maximos Constas.