The most important Christian icon is Christ Pantocrator. This image portrays Jesus as the world’s sovereign ruler. Christ Pantocrator was one of the oldest images of Jesus and appears in the most prominent positions in cave churches. This article explains the history and meaning of Christ Pantocrator.
Christ Pantocrator has a standard look. With a stoic, somber face, Jesus looks forward. He has long brown hair and a beard. Jesus holds a book representing the Gospel in his left hand, and the other hand gestures a blessing. A cruciform halo surrounds Jesus’ head, and the letters “IC XC” are written above the halo. The scene includes only the upper half of Jesus’ body.
The Meaning—Almighty Ruler
The word Pantocrator means “Almighty,” or “All-powerful.” In the Greek version of the Old Testament (LXX), pantocrator is the translation of “Lord of Hosts” and “God Almighty.” In the book of Revelation, pantocrator appears nine times as a title that emphasizes God’s sovereignty and power.
The icon Christ Pantocrator emphasizes Jesus’ omnipotence, his power to do anything. Jesus is the “Ruler of All” who sustains all things. The symbolism of Christ Pantocrator (explained below) borrows from Roman imperial imagery to project his sovereign power. Early Christians used cultural symbols to proclaim the sovereign power of the resurrected Christ.
Moreover, the location of Christ Pantocrator in the apse (the wall of the front sanctuary) also carries theological meaning. Byzantine churches were patterned after the Roman basilica—the king’s chamber for holding court. The apse was the position of authority where the ruling official sat. Jesus’ position in the apse declares that he is the legitimate ruler and sovereign judge over all. Or to use the Greek word, he is pantocrator.
Christians began to visually depict Jesus in the late 300’s, once there was no longer a threat of persecution. These early images present Jesus as a stoic figure sitting on a throne with a scroll. In the 600’s, Christ Pantocrator emerged as a simplification of that early image. The look of Christ Pantocrator has hardly changed in the last 1,500 years.
Most early images of Jesus were destroyed during the Iconoclastic controversy (726–842 AD). The icons of Christ Pantocrator in Cappadocia churches, dating to 850–1100 AD, are among the oldest surviving artistic depictions of Jesus. Dark Church (Göreme) features the finest images of Christ Pantocrator in Cappadocia. Bright and penetrating, they appear in three consecutive domes.
The gesture of Jesus’ right hand has layers of meaning. Orators in the ancient Greco-Roman world used hand gestures to communicate with listeners. In Christ Pantocrator, Jesus' oratorical hand gesture declares he has something important to say. In Byzantine art and theology, this gesture also indicates a blessing. Christ Pantocrator pronounces a divine blessing of mercy. Orthodox priests’ use the same gesture to bless during the liturgy. And most interesting is the exact shape of Jesus’ figures. They bend and twist to form the letters “IC XC.” This is an abbreviation of Jesus’ name, made from first and last letters of the Greek IHCOYC (Jesus) XPICTOC (Christ).
In his left hand, Jesus holds a book (sometimes a scroll). Because of the book, Christ Pantocrator is also called Christ the Teacher. The book is usually closed, but sometimes opened to John 8:12—“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” This verse has multiple meanings in the conjunction with Christ Pantocrator. First, consider the physical context. A worshipper in a dark cave church surrounded by flickering candles looks up at Jesus and beholds the True Light who overcomes all darkness. Theologically, Jesus’ words echo God’s words at creation, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). Jesus is the same powerful light of God who is now re-creating the world. At a personal level, these words provided hope and comfort. Cave churches functioned as funerary chapels. Dead people were buried inside (or very near) the church. A person looking at Christ Pantocrator, though close to death, could behold Light and Life.
Variation 1: Christ in Glory
There are two variations of Christ Pantocrator that appear in Cappadocian cave churches—“Christ in Glory” and “Diesis.” They are both the same as Christ Pantocrator, but have additional figures at his side.
Christ in Glory (also, Christ in Majesty) shows a full-body Jesus sitting frontally on his throne and flanked by heavenly figures. Around Jesus are a variety of angels: plain angels in worship, seraphim angels with six wings covered with eyes, or the archangels Michael and Gabriel. This scene comes from Isaiah's throne room vision of God:
I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne;
and the train of his robe filled the temple.
Above him were seraphim, each with six wings:
With two wings they covered their faces,
with two they covered their feet,
and with two they were flying.
And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (6:1–3)
In Revelation 5, the apostle John continues the imagery, but locates Jesus as the Almighty person sitting on the throne. In John's eschatological vision, thousands of angels sing,
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”
In the image of Pantocrator, four animals may also surround Jesus. These are the four living creatures in the Old Testament prophets Ezekiel and Daniel. For early Christians the creatures symbolize the four Evangelists—Matthew (man), Mark (lion), John (eagle), and Luke (ox). In a few paintings, the four animals are merged into a mythical creature (tetramorph).
The throne of Christ sits inside a mandorla. This large circle denotes Jesus’ complete holiness. The hand of God sometimes appears above Jesus’ head at the apex of the apse as a sign of divine approval.
The image of Christ in Glory, also called Christ in Majesty, was the first Christian depiction of Jesus, beginning in the late 300’s. In the 600’s the Byzantine Empire began to wane, so churches decreased in size. To make the icon of Jesus properly fit into a small, rounded apse, they developed the image of Christ Pantocrator—a half-length version with no surrounding figures. Among Cappadocian cave churches, Haçlı Church (Red Valley) and Pancarlık Church (Ortahısar) feature elaborate and well-preserved images of Christ in Glory.
Variation 2: Diesis
Like Christ in Glory, the image of Diesis is a fuller version of Christ Pantocrator. Jesus again sits enthroned, holding a book and gesturing with his hands. But in the image Diesis, the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist stand next to Jesus with their hands raised. They petition Jesus to give mercy to humans. The icon's name diesis means prayer or supplication in Greek. John the Baptist stands on the right, features cornrows, and is labeled in Greek Ioannes Prodromos, “the forerunner.”
Diesis became a popular apse image around the year 1,000. The scene derives from Christ in Glory, but emphasizes prayer and intercession instead of worship and judgment.
Diesis is a popular scene in Cappadocian cave churches, especially those built to house the patron’s tombs. Worshippers join with Mary and John in praying to Jesus for mercy, especially on behalf of the dead.
The Divine Liturgy of St. Basil
As the Church grew the 4th century, there was a lack of qualified bishops to lead people in worship. So Basil of Caesarea created an order of worship (liturgy) to structure prayer times in the Church. In the Orthodox liturgy is designed to lead people before God's throne so they can worship with the angels. The painting program and architecture of Byzantine churches visually repeat the liturgy program. The result is that worshipers, both orally and visually, enter into before God' presence in worship.
The underline portions directly allude to the visual elements of the church space. By reading these portions of the liturgy while standing before an image of Christ in Glory, you can see the purpose and function of the
"No one bound by worldly desires and pleasures is worthy to approach, draw near or minister to You, the King of glory. To serve You is great and awesome even for the heavenly powers. But because of Your ineffable and immeasurable love for us, You became man without alteration or change. You have served as our High Priest, and as Lord of all, and have entrusted to us the celebration of this liturgical sacrifice [Eucharist on alter] without the shedding of blood. For You alone, Lord our God, rule over all things in heaven and on earth. You are seated on the throne of the Cherubim, the Lord of the Seraphim and the King of Israel. You alone are holy and dwell among Your saints. You alone are good and ready to hear. Therefore, I implore you, look upon me, Your sinful and unworthy servant, and cleanse my soul and heart from evil consciousness. Enable me by the power of Your Holy Spirit so that, vested with the grace of priesthood, I may stand before Your holy Table and celebrate the mystery of Your holy and pure Body and Your precious Blood[Eucharist on alter]. To you I come with bowed head and pray: do not turn Your face away from me or reject me from among Your children, but make me, Your sinful and unworthy servant, worthy to offer to You these gifts. For You, Christ our God, are the Offerer and the Offered, the One who receives and is distributed, and to You we give glory, together with Your eternal Father and Your holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.
"We who mystically represent the Cherubim sing the thrice holy hymn ["Holy Holy Holy]to the life; giving Trinity. Let us set aside all the cares of life that we may receive the King of all...
"Who is worthy to praise Your mighty acts? Or to make known all Your praises? Or tell of all Your wonderful deeds at all times? Master of all things, Lord of heaven and earth, and of every creature visible and invisible, You are seated upon the throne of glory and behold the depths. You are without beginning, invisible, incomprehensible, beyond words, unchangeable. You are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the great God and Savior of our hope, the image of Your goodness, the true seal of revealing in Himself You, the Father. He is the living Word, the true God, eternal wisdom, life, sanctification, power, and the true light. Through Him the Holy Spirit was manifested, the spirit of truth the gift of Sonship, the pledge of our future inheritance, the first fruits of eternal blessings, the life giving power, the source of sanctification through whom every rational and spiritual creature is made capable of worshiping You and giving You eternal glorification, for all things are subject to You. For You are praised by the angels, archangels, thrones, dominions, principalities, authorities, powers, and the many eyed Cherubim. Round about You stand the Seraphim, one with six wings and the other with six wings; with two they cover their faces; with two they cover their feet; with two they fly, crying out to one another with unceasing voices and ever resounding praises:
"Singing the victory hymn, proclaiming, crying out, and saying[sounds of 4 creatures]: Holy, holy, holy, Lord Almighty [Greek, pantocrator], heaven and earth are filled with Your glory.