Studying the Sinai Pantocrator:
Part two

This is the second of a two-part article. Read Part One. Our next new essay will appear on Tuesday.

By Luiz Coelho

Symbolism emerges in the use of light. In the Sinai Pantocrator, the light moves from left to right creating a sense of mystery on the right side of the image. In fact, although the figure is pretty much centered in the picture frame, there is a very noticeable asymmetry between the left and right sides of Jesus’ face. The left side, bright and shiny, shows relaxed eyebrows and lips. On the right side, Jesus’ face is contracted and shadows make it even more mysterious. This duality of a serene and compassionate Jesus, and a dark and severe one are very appropriate at a time when the concept of the dual nature of Jesus Christ was being discussed by the Church. The use of light, and also of different facial expressions, reinforce the human and divine natures orthodox Christians believe exist in Jesus Christ. He is simultaneously Mercy and Judge.

There is also another very interesting feature related to the use of light in this image. Jesus’ eyes do not show any kind of reflection, unlike previous Egyptian encaustic paintings. It is feasible to suggest that the painter behind this Pantocrator had enough knowledge of light and shadow in order to know it is necessary to depict the way eyes behave when light is cast on them. One possible explanation for the absence of any reflection is the belief that Jesus is the source of light, and since light comes from him, his eyes are clear of reflections. This became the general practice in later icons, and also came to be applied to a saint, since they were reflecting the light of Christ that emerged from them.

Pantocrator Sinai

Color was also used in order to reinforce the idea of unearthly lights and heavenly environments. Tones are warm and follow a palette that ranges from ocre to brown, centered in golden tones. A circular halo, made of gold leaf, and which possibly had some incrustations, shows very vividly that the one who is represented is “not of this world”. In fact one can link halos to older polytheistic traditions of Sun-god worship. In this case, Jesus is seen as the one who replaced those gods as the new “Sun of Righteousness”.

Graphic elements were also added to the painting in order to emphasize even more that it is not a portrait of a human being. One can see three axes of what could be a cross painted on the halo, with star-like designs in each one of them. Those star-like designs also appear in ochre on the top-right and top-left corners of the image. They would later symbolize purity, and would be a key element in depictions of the Virgin Mary. This is probably their meaning in this case as well, but later icons of the Pantocrator substitute inscriptions in Greek, as an evolution of this style.

It is also important to take further notice of the symbolism behind the pose and gestures of Jesus Christ in this scene. His body takes full control of the scene, showing that it is all about him. The Gospel book in his left hand symbolizes his authority over the Cosmos and also remionds the viewer of his ministry on Earth. His right hand blesses the faithful, but is also raised as a sign of teaching and/or authority – a common feature of Greco-Roman portraits and sculptures. His fingers are tied together in groups of two and three, which is usually interpreted as further reiteration of the belief in the dual natures of Jesus Christ and also in the Holy Trinity. Both doctrines found their formation and articulation in the midst of much debate during the first centuries of Christianity. Representing Christ himself endorsing these new dogmas was a clever way of teaching the faithful about the orthodox Christian faith.

Many of these elements would endure in later depictions of the Christ Pantocrator. A later example of the same icon (link to: ), shows a more stable style, which is still used by current iconographers. It is astonishing to notice that many of the features found in the Sinai Pantocrator were retained and consolidated in later icons: the frontal pose, the use of warm colors, dramatic light that “comes from the subject”, hand gestures and golden halo, among many others. Some others evolved from elements found in the Sinai Pantocrator: star-like shapes were substituted on the top of the painting by “IC XC” (which are the initials for the name Jesus Christ in Greek), and by other inscriptions around the halo, usually “I am who I am” in Greek. Strong outlines and background simplification were enhanced, and garments became more stylized with additional symbolism attached to them. For example, red (or purple) represented divinity, and blue represented humanity. Jesus was “God in man’s clothes.” Some depictions of the Blessed Mother and saints have an opposite color scheme (red over blue), representing “men attaining union (theosis) with God.”

The Sinai Pantocrator marks a very important change in Western art. It shows visible signs of the end of an art more preoccupied with naturalism and illusion of reality, and the beginning of a style more concerned about symbols and the supernatural. Icons have also proven to be a valuable tool in communicating the teachings of the Christian Church to its members. The symbolism behind them often was a means of embedding doctrine in visual symbols. Its style was a merger of all Christianized regions of the empire, most notably the Eastern ones, and naturally incorporated Hellenistic philosophical and spiritual principles.

Therefore, this icon is a key work of art for the understanding of the ascendance of Byzantine art, which ran parallel to the advance of Christianity in the Roman Empire and the eventual theological disputes that happened within the Christian Church, such as the debates over the existence of God as Trinity, the natures of Christ, and even the iconoclastic controversy. While different from other artistic styles which were used for religious purposes, but not necessarily “as” religion, Byzantine iconography was definitely a key element in Eastern Christian faith, to the point that it has retained and distilled its main characteristics, and preserved its integrity into our own time, despite all sorts of realistic and naturalistic tendencies that affected Western European art at the end of the Middle Ages. The Sinai Pantocrator is one of the most meaningful Byzantine pieces to art gistorians because it gives many hints of how a civilization that for centuries embraced harmony and realism adopted stylized and simplified forms in order to make room for deep symbolism. Again, Christianity is the key for such a mystery, and iconography is the visible proof we have of all those changes.

Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian.

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