Claudia Egher
Christ Pantokrator

Christ Pantokrator or On the Double Nature of God

Continuing a tradition initiated by the polytheist religions of Antiquity, Christianity has made use of holy images since its early days, as they proved to be effective in the public as well as in the private sphere, functioning both as intercessors on behalf of an individual by the divinity, and as pedagogic means through which people could become better acquainted with the life of Christ and that of the first martyrs. Whether Christ should be depicted in the Nazarene style, with long hair and a beard, or with short, curly hair were initially flamboyant questions, particularly since the first images of the Savior bore an uncanny resemblance to Zeus and Apollo (Herrin, 2007). The manner in which God on earth was to be depicted was furthermore complicated by the complexity inherent in His being, and various ways were sought out in which His double nature, both human and divine, could be depicted. The way in which a solution was found to this puzzling issue has depended throughout time not only on the ingeniosity of the artist, but also on the prevailing religious and philosophical conceptions on the connection between body and soul. In this paper I will therefore show that the way in which Christ is depicted in the above image does not only represent an inspired manner of rendering His double nature, but that it also testifies to the dominant religious beliefs regarding the body at that time.

Christ Pantokrator was painted in classical Byzantine style in the 6th century for the St. Catherine Monastery on Mount Sinai in Egypt. As He is dressed in a black attire occupying the entire foreground, our attention is immediately drawn upon Christ’s face, and the puzzling discovery that the one eye differs from the other is followed by the awareness that the right and left side of His face are not symmetrical, but radically different in expression. Thus, whereas the left eye sets upon us a gentle and understanding look, the gaze of the right one is terrible, inspiring both fear and awe. The shinny appearance of His skin is in harmony with the golden aura surrounding His head, which, together with the preciously decorated book He holds in His hand, casts all doubt aside regarding the identity of the depicted. Christ Pantokrator is therefore in a way the visual rendition of the Eucharistic presence, representing within one and the same image Christ as the just and severe master of the last judgment and the embodied Son of God, aware through His own humanity of the frailty and defects of our own. The precious stones and metal with which the Gospel is decorated are in sharp contrast with the austerity of Christ’s attire. This contrast indicates not only the vital importance of the teachings contained in the New Testament as the only way conducive to God, but it also proclaims the superiority of the divine nature of Christ over His human one. Dressed in a plain black attire, Christ’s body is simultaneously present and absent, it is more alluded to rather than depicted.

According to Erik Borgman (vlenningborgman01, 2009), the body in Christianity is not so much denied, as rather perceived in a different way, as something that one is given and which is to be put to use in certain ways rather than in others. The ascetics form an exception from this understanding, as in an ultimate effort to leave behind them the world of sin, they deny even its last symbol, their own bodies. At the time when Christ Pantokrator was painted, asceticism was highly popular, particularly in Egypt, where the first larvas and monasteries were built, and where the desert was home to numerous men who had forsaken the world in order to find God. The fact that in this painting Christ’s body is barely discernible, that it seems to be “mere metaphor” (Brown, p.405) testifies to these beliefs; lest men should err, even flesh triumphant upon sin and death, the body of Christ himself, was to be rather hinted at than shown.

To conclude, Christ Pantokrator is at the same time a religious image unique for the way in which the human and divine nature of Christ are simultaneously portrayed, and a testimony to the way in which the body in a religious sense was perceived at the time.

1. Herrin, J. (2007): Byzantium. The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. London: Penguin Books
2. Brown, D.(2007): God and Grace of Body. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 392-421
3. Interview Alkeline van Lenning with Erik Borgman, 2009,