Sunday, September 18, 2011

Iconic Icons: Pantocrator

In two previous posts (here and here), I discussed the theology behind icons. Now I'm going to begin a series on some famous icons and types of icons that will be entitled Iconic Icons (yes, the pun is very much intended).

The first icon I'll cover is the basic icon: the Pantocrator (Παντοκρατωρ), which can be translated either "Almighty" or "Ruler of All." It is the icon of He who is the core of the Christian faith: Jesus Christ Himself. During the iconoclastic period of the 8th and 9th centuries (roughly), the main thing attacked was the icon of Christ. Of course, icons of the Theotokos and the saints were also attacked, but when reading the main defenses of icons, it seems like they focus most on defending icons of Christ, and then they use those arguments (expanded) to argue for icons of Theotokos and the saints. (For a good review of the debate over the icon of Christ, see Cardinal Cristoph Schönborn's book God's Human Face: The Christ-Icon.)

Due to the attacks of the iconoclasts, many of the early icons of the Church were lost. Most of the earliest icons still remaining are from Saint Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai. Accordingly, the oldest known Pantocrator is found there (pictured below).

This icon portrays astoundingly one of the key aspects of the Pantocrator. Obviously, it is an icon of Christ, and so it depicts Him, usually from the waist up, traditionally with one hand making the sign of blessing (forming the letters ICXC, which stand for the first and last letters of "Jesus" and "Christ" in Greek -- Ιεσους Χριστος) and one hand holding the Book of the Gospels, sometimes open to a verse. These two hands are supposed to represent mercy and judgment, splitting the icon down the middle into two attributes of Christ (the split into two also represents the two natures joined in Christ).

The icon at Saint Catherine's Monastery showcases this split even better. Instead of just the hands representing the two attributes, even Christ's face does. The right eye (the eye above the sign of blessing) is an eye with a merciful gaze, and the left eye (above the Book of the Gospels) is a judgment eye gazing sharply. With this Pantocrator, one is able to cover one side of the Lord's face and see His judgmental stare, and he can see His merciful gaze when the other side is covered.

That is the key to what makes the Pantocrator such a unique icon of Christ: its depiction of the two attributes of mercy and judgment, representing the two natures of Christ. Its use is so ubiquitous that almost all Eastern chapels or churches have a Pantocrator written on their top domes (I even heard once that it was a requirement, though I am not certain of that).

In conclusion, the Pantocrator is the basic icon, and it is most likely the most well-known and recognizable icon (it even appears on the cover of Ignatius Press' popular Catholic Edition of the RSV translation of the Bible). It is extremely unlikely to find any collection of icons that does not include the Pantocrator (after all, why would you have icons to represent Mary and the saints, yet none to represent Jesus Christ, the Son of God Incarnate, the Saviour of mankind?). So, if you decide to begin a collectionf of icons to aid you in prayer, begin by acquiring a Pantocrator.

I hope you found this post helpful, and I hope you enjoy this series.

Christ the King, have mercy on us!

Nota Bene: Some information was taken from Wikipedia, particularly the page on the Pantocrator (and also a bit from the page on Saint Catherine's Monastery).

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