The use of the word “Pantocrator” with respect to Jesus Christ is encountered in the monuments of Byzantine, Balkan and medieval Russian art. The most common depictions of Christ show him standing in a frontal position, full-length, blessing with his right hand and holding a gospel in his left.

These images, says N.V.Pokrovsky, have been known since, at least, the 4th century. In the opinion of some scholars, the iconography developed under the influence of late antique emperor portraits. The inscription in Greek (Pantocrator) appeared in the 6th century.

N.P.Kondakov links the appearance of the Pantocrator iconography to widespread Apocalyptical scenes in the Byzantine 4th – 6th century mosaics portraying Jesus Christ as the Judge of the World amongst the angels trumpeting the Second Coming. On some icons the Savior is replaced with the Prepared Throne. Later similar depictions of Jesus Christ portrayed Him as the Pantocrator. Such is the mid-6th century mosaics on the triumphal arch in the Basilica of Sant Apollinare in Classe near Ravenna, Italy, in which the subject of the Second Coming is represented through the medallions of the Savior Pantocrator and the four apocalyptical animals.

The Pantocrator image may be associated with the appropriate fragment of the Apocalypse of John “And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood… be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him… I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty”. (Apocalypse, I, 5-8). “And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.” (Apocalypse, IV, 2). “And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals. And one of the elders saith unto me, behold, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.” (Apocalypse, V, 1-5). This depiction of Jesus Christ portrays Him as the Heavenly King and Judge. “Behold, I come quickly: blessed is he that keepeth the sayings of the prophecy of this book.” (Apocalypse, XXII, 7).

The Savior Pantocrator may be shown half- and full-length or enthroned. The gospel can be open or closed; on some icons Christ is shown holding a scroll instead of a gospel. Besides, a depiction of his right blessing hand may vary in details (held before his chest or drawn aside, the palms facing outward or inward) and the position of the fingers.

In the monumental painting the Pantocrator image acquired a special meaning in the post-iconoclastic period. It was painted on the ceiling of the domes which plays a significant role in the mural painting. A significance of this icon at that time was stressed by Saint Photios, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (858-867; 877-886 CE) who said these words while sanctifying a church in Constantinople: “He (Christ) seems to be surveying the Earth and contemplating its beauty and organization.” An image of the Pantocrator, surrounded by the Archangels, is painted on the ceiling of the dome of the St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev (1037-1045).

Half-length icons of the Savior Pantocrator are usually placed in the middle of the Deesis row such as the Savior from the Zvenigorod tier
by Andrey Rublev (ca. 1400, State Tretyakov Gallery). Since the 15th century, the Pantocrator has been shown holding an open gospel with an inscription reading: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew, 11:28), first appearing on the icon of the Savior Enthroned (15th c.) from State Tretyakov Gallery’s collections.

Zhanna G. Belik,

Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.

Olga E. Savchenko,

research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.


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