Christ in Majesty

THE ICONOGRAPHY
Starting in the 4th century, the Roman church adopted images of the regnant Christ as sitting on a throne flanked by saints (usually Peter and Paul), as in this sarcophagus fragment and in the catacombs painting at right, where he holds a book on his knee. This development is related to the genesis, also in the 4th century, of the Traditio Legis iconographic type, in which the enthroned Christ entrusts the Law to Paul and the "keys of the kingdom" to Peter. He is also enthroned in Last Judgment images from at least the 6th century. In the 6th-century apse at San Vitale, Ravenna, the "throne" is a globe representing the universe.

In some cases, Christ was represented symbolically by an enthroned cross (example). In this apse from the 11th or 12th century, he is represented by both the cross and his own face. In later images angels are added to the entourage (as in the image above) or replace the saints entirely (example).

By at least the late 5th century this iconographic type had diffused as far as Milan (example) and Alexandria (example) and even to an Arian facility in Ravenna. Later versions will have the image in a mandorla or circle (example). After the 12th century it became less common in the West, where images of the Madonna Enthroned gained popularity. (An important exception is the apse mosaic at St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome.)

Another early type had Christ treading on a lion and a serpent (example), reflecting Psalm 90(91):13, "Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk: and thou shalt trample under foot the lion and the dragon."

CHRIST PANTOCRATOR

Eastern churches developed a similar iconographic type known as Christ Pantocrator. Portrayed half-height, Christ looks directly at the viewers and blesses them with his right hand. In his left he holds a book.1 The earliest extant example is the 6th-century St. Catherine's Pantocrator (second picture at right), but it may have been based on earlier works that disappeared during the Iconoclast ascendancy (Chatzidakis, 202-204).

The Christ Pantocrator became a common feature of Eastern apse mosaics (example). In Russia a version with a full-height Christ was adopted by iconographers in the 12th and 13th centuries for use on the iconostasis (example).2

THE HAND GESTURES

In the St. Catherine's icon, as in several of the images cited above, the thumb of the right hand touches the fourth finger (the one next to the pinky). A number of sites on the web say this began as an oratorical gesture, but I have not found it in any statues of Roman orators, nor is it mentioned in Quintilian's extensive survey of hand gestures.3

In another early pattern the fourth and pinky fingers curve down while the thumb and other fingers point up, as in the third picture at right. This latter con­fig­u­ra­tion be­came the norm in western images of Christ in majesty, except for Last Judgments.

IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION

As Son of God, Word of God, King of Kings, etc., Christ appears in various passages of the Book of Revelation (example).

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-08-11, 2016-09-28, 2016-12-07, 2017-02-19.

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SHOWN ABOVE

Christ Enthroned (12th century), The Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily. See the description page.

OTHER IMAGES

Catacombs painting, 4th century – See the description page

The ear­li­est known Christ Pan­to­cra­tor, in St. Ca­the­rine's Mo­na­ste­ry, Si­nai – See the de­scrip­tion page

This 6th-century example represents the throne as a blue disc. – See the description page

MORE IMAGES

  • 4th or 5th century: In the Euphrasian Basilica, a fresco of Christ enthroned with a book on his knee and flanked by women saints and another nearby with Christ flanked by St. John the Evangelist and one other saint.
  • 5th century: Christ with the 24 elders.
  • 6th century: The enthroned Christ receives the martyrs' crowns.
  • 6th century: Small mosaic image of Christ blessing the congregation above the apse mosaic of the Transfiguration at Sant'Apollinare in Classe.
  • 6th century: Ivory diptych – enthroned Christ with scroll and apostles.
  • 10th century: Whalebone carving of Christ enthroned with book and blessing.
  • 10th or 11th century: Apse of a Carolingian-era church in Switzerland.
  • 11th century (?): Spanish tympanum: A crowned Christ stands and blesses the viewer.
  • 12th century: Pantocrator mosaic in the cathedral apse in Cefalu, Sicily.
  • 12th century: Tympanum in Assisi, Christ flanked by St. Rufinus and the Virgin Lactans.
  • Second half of the 12th century: From Rome, a Romanesque treatment of the Christ Pantocrator.
  • 12th or 13th century: Mosaic above the apsidal arch at San Clemente, Rome
  • 13th or 14th century: Tympanum in Léon, Spain, with enthroned Christ and the four evangelists.
  • 19th century: Façade of St. Paul Outside the Walls – Christ enthroned and flanked by Peter and Paul.
  • 1919: People from the world over approach the enthroned Sacred Heart.

ALSO SEE

NOTES

1 The Greek word Pantocrator means "Lord of All." It renders Hebrew words for God 58 times in the Septuagint, nine times in Revelation, and once in 2 Corinthians. See 2 Corinthians 6:18, Revelation 1:8, 4:8, 11:17, 15:3, 16:7, 16:14, 19:6, 19:15, and 21:22. For the Old Testament passages, see this page.

2 Tradigo, 230.

3 Institutes of Oratory, XI, iii, 92-104.