The Sinai Pantocrator: Iconography 101

This is the first of two articles. Part two will appear on Sunday.

By Luiz Coelho

Most churchgoers have probably seen this representation of Jesus Christ. The icon of Christ Pantocrator located at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, Egypt (the Sinai Pantocrator) is regarded as one of the earliest examples available of what would be later described as Byzantine Iconography (or painting). Earlier pieces probably existed. In fact some features of the Sinai Pantocrator already were stable enough to conclude that such an icon was developed in the midst of a transitional style of Eastern representations of Christ in Majesty. However, all other pieces either were lost due to lack of preservation, or more likely were destroyed during the iconoclastic controversy. Consequently, this example of the Pantocrator is one of the oldest extant examples of an emerging style, heavily influenced by early Christian spirituality and Hellenistic philosophical thought, that would replace older artistic traditions and become a reference not only to the Eastern Christian world, but also to the West, and to the fringes of the Christian world.

The style expressed in the Sinai Pantocrator is an example of a genre which emerges from the late Roman Empire and from what would be called the Byzantine Empire, or the Roman Empire of the West. This style would survive in most of Eastern Europe, and Christian areas in the Middle East, leading to regional and periodic variations, such as Early, Middle and Late Byzantine, Coptic, Russian, and Armenian. It also would provide important elements upon which later styles would be developed in Western Europe. In fact, some scholars would regard Romanesque and Early Gothic paintings as a “Western” iconographic tradition. The importance behind the Sinai Pantocrator lies in the innumerable sub-products which emerged later and which were continuously used for Christian worship, and remain important for us Christians in our own day.

The image found in St. Catherine’s Monastery of Christ as the Pantocrator , which is Greek for “Ruler of all,” is a 33 X 18 cm encaustic painting on wood, probably done during the 6th century A.D. It shows a frontal portrait of Christ holding a Gospel book in one hand, and blessing the viewer with the other hand. Behind him, one can see what seems to be a city. Around his head a gold leaf halo indicates to the viewer that this painting is not the portrait of a mere man, but of a divine figure. In this case, the iconographer wishes to indicate that this is an image of God Incarnate.

Pantocrator Sinai

This emerging iconographic style is characterized by several influences, so that it is impossible to determine with any certainty where it was painted. One influence is Roman portraiture, which flourished during most of the Roman Empire. Paintings were often commissioned by wealthy families and portrayed people in dignifying frontal poses with an austere look. Like them, the Sinai Christ also follows a frontal pose and has an air of nobility. Another visible influence is the Egyptian school of Fayum, Lower Egypt. It is understood that large encaustic paintings started to replace reliefs on sarcophagi lids during the Roman era, and are a clear example of the merger between the Roman and Egyptian portraiture traditions. In fact, the Sinai Pantocrator resembles these paintings in pose, aspect and materials much more than any other work of art from that period. Obviously, the link between depictions of people in the afterlife and the Risen Son of God was very evident, and the evolution of such portraiture is clearly understandable.

Another source of influence for Byzantine iconography was a style of Syrian paintings that emerged during the Roman Empire as a merger of Asian and Hellenistic traditions. This style was essentially symbolic with outlines, isocephaly (all heads on a level), bodies without weight or substance, and space reduced to a minimum. Many of those characteristics are found in the Sinai Pantocrator too, and its further descendants would take them to the edge. The portrait of Christ takes control of the scene, practically hiding the landscape behind him, which still has some elements of the illusionistic decorative Roman tradition of painting. It sends a clear message that the subject of the portrait, and not an elaborate architectural landscape, is what matters in this new style.

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, on which he examines “Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view.”

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