The Pan­to­cra­tor – Je­sus Christ as Almighty God

The Daily Telegraph - - Obituaries - CHRISTO­PHER HOWSE

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.

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