In Revelation 19:16 Christ is "King of Kings and Lord of Lords." Starting in the 4th century, a principal way of expressing his kingship in images was to picture him seated on a throne and flanked by saints (often Peter and Paul), as in this sarcophagus fragment and in the catacombs painting at right. He almost always holds a book on his left thigh and blesses the viewer with his right hand, as in the mosaic above. The flanking figures notwithstanding, he fixes his gaze directly on the viewer. In the great 4th-century apse mosaic at Santa Pudenziana in Rome Peter and Paul are joined by other apostles and given martyr's crowns as Christ presides from a high throne with a book on his knee.
This kind of image 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. 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. In the 6th-century apse at San Vitale, Ravenna, the "throne" is a globe representing the universe.
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(91):13, "Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk: and thou shalt trample under foot the lion and the dragon."
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. Revised 2016-08-11, 2016-09-28, 2016-12-07, 2017-02-19, 2019-02-15.
Christ Enthroned (12th century), The Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily. See the description page.