The Pantocrator – Jesus Christ as Almighty God
Afriend was struck by some frescoes in Piedmont and on his return asked me about something the guide had said which puzzled him. One image was said to be of the Pantocrator. Was this, he asked, meant to be God the Father or Jesus Christ?
I hardly knew how to answer. All I knew was that Pantocrator meant Ruler of All, a title applicable to God. Whether that denoted God the Father or the Word of God as creator depended on the artist’s intentions.
What I didn’t know, in my ignorance, was that Pantocrator had been used by the Jewish translators of the Bible into Greek, who, starting in the 3rd century before Christ, had produced the version called the Septuagint for the use of Greek-speaking
Jews in dispersed communities.
They used Pantocrator coupled with the name of
God to translate the Hebrew word that we transliterate as Sabaoth. In
English the compound title is often given as Lord
God of Hosts.
Obviously in Jewish writings before the birth of Christ, Pantocrator could not refer to Jesus Christ. But with the coming of Christianity, it was employed in two ways. One was as a term to refer to God as almighty. So in the Nicene Creed (composed in Greek), which Christians still recite each Sunday, Pantocrator was the word for Almighty in the first clause: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty.”
An influential passage from the last book of the New Testament, Revelation, describes four winged beasts worshipping God and crying out: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.” There too, the word Almighty was expressed in the original Greek as Pantocrator. The beasts were later associated with the four Gospel-writers (the Eagle for St John, the Lion for St Mark, the Ox for St Luke and the winged Man for St Matthew).
In visual art, the Pantocrator developed according to conventions that were handed down. Even before the outbreak of iconoclasm that destroyed many images in the 8th century, Christ was depicted face-on, holding a book in one hand and raising his other hand in blessing, as ruler and judge of all. This is how he is shown in a celebrated icon of the 6th or 7th century at the monastery of St Catherine in Sinai, which escaped the wave of iconoclasm.
Christ as Pantocrator came to be put in the dominant position in churches, either at the centre of a dome or vault, or looking out from the upper part of the apse above the altar, the focal point for worshippers facing eastward. Both are seen at St Mark’s Venice, where, on the dome of the Ascension, Christ is seated on the bow of heaven.
Such depictions tended to be conservative in style. I went all the way to the village of Taull in the Pyrenees to see the wonderful example there (pictured here). Christ in a sacred mandorla sitting on the bow, his feet on the globe, is flanked by Alpha and Omega (mentioned in the Book of Revelation too, and invoked in ancient ceremonies for the Easter Vigil). On his book is inscribed Ego sum lux mundi, “I am the Light of the World,” the words that Jesus applied to himself in St John’s Gospel (8:12).
I knew the original of this remarkable image was in the National Museum of Catalan Art, in Barcelona, but I wanted to see, with the aid of the reproduction left at Taull, at least how it would have looked in the church for which it was made. It was worth the journey.
So if a traveller comes across a Pantocrator such as the one on the vault of the chapel of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Prunetto, it certainly shows Jesus Christ as a man but portrayed as God in fulness of power.