Starting in the 4th century, Christian art adapted the iconographic "vocabulary" used in images of the Emperor and his court to portray Christ as "King of Kings and Lord of Lords" (Revelation 19:16). Like a Roman emperor he was pictured on a throne flanked by "courtiers" — Peter and Paul, and often a number of others (example). In some images his hair and beard were modeled on portraits of emperors, which in turn had been based on statues of Jupiter (example). Sometimes the "throne" was a globe to represent the universe that he rules (example). This too was taken from imperial iconography.1
In these images Christ and his saints wore the garb of a Roman senator: a toga hanging from the left shoulder over a "dalmatic," which was a sleeved tunic with two vertical stripes. These garments are also seen in early examples of the Traditio Legis, where an enthroned Christ hands symbols of authority to Saints Peter and Paul. They continue in the iconography well into the second millenium, and even in the Renaissance apostles will be pictured in one long garment covered by another that hangs loosely from one or both shoulders (example).
Unlike the imperial portraits, Christ typically holds a scroll or book in his left hand and blesses the viewer with his right. In later images he can be flanked by the symbols of the four evangelists (example) or by various other saints. He is also enthroned in Last Judgment images from at least the 6th century (example).
By at least the late 5th century this iconographic type had diffused as far as Milan (example) and Alexandria, 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.)
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).
Another early type had Christ treading on a lion and a serpent (example), reflecting Psalm 90:13 (Vulgate), "Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk: and thou shalt trample under foot the lion and the dragon."
Two-dimensional Christ Enthroned images invariably put a crossed halo behind the figure's head, but in sculptural work a crown is used instead (example).
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 BLESSING GESTURE
In the St. Catherine's icon, as in several of the images cited above, Christ blesses the viewer with the thumb of the right hand touching the fourth finger (the one next to the pinky). In the sarcophagus fragment mentioned above, the fingers also seem to be arranged this way. 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 Whatever the origin, Orthodox believers see it as a way of forming the letters IC XC, the monogram of Jesus Christ,4 and in the East it is the traditional way of picturing the fingers in Christ's blessing.
In the West a tradition gradually developed of picturing the blessing hand with the fourth and pinky fingers curved down and the thumb and other fingers pointed up, as in the third picture at right. This is seen as early as the 6th century in this mosaic. In the 9th century Leo IV required priests to bless the chalice and host during Mass with their fingers held this way, "by which the Trinity is symbolized." By the 11th century it became the configuration that western Christians used when making the sign of the cross on themselves. After the Middle Ages, the open hand was more common for the sign of the cross, but the art continued to picture Christ's blessing with the thumb and two fingers raised (example).5
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University.
Christ Enthroned (12th century), The Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily. See the description page.