Icon of Christ Sinai: Apologetic for the Incarnation

The Icon of Christ Pantocrator, from the Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai, is one of the most profound theological images of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The icon is not just a nice sacred image that adorns churches and homes. Rather, it speaks a theological truth about Our Lord Jesus Christ.

In researching this icon, I came across various descriptions and explanations. Ordinarily I avoid quoting from online catalogues when writing for general audiences. However, the following description by the sisters of the Paracletos Greek Orthodox Monastery in South Carolina captures perfectly the essence of this icon:

Christ Pantocrator, Encaustic on wood, St. Catherine’s Monastery Sinai, 6th century. One of the most important icons in the Monastery’s collection and represents the two faces of Christ. In which Christ is presented in the act of blessing with His right hand while holding a closed gospel book in His left. […]The most singular aspect of the work is that the two halves of Christ’s face express different emotions: on the side on which He holds the Gospel, His features are hard and severe, representing Christ as a Judge who sees all, while the expression on the side with the blessing hand is calm and serene, representing Christ in His role of savior.

The word Pantocrator is Greek, meaning “Ruler of All.” The image expresses the central reality of the Christian faith; the Divine Majesty of the creator and ruler of all the world, made flesh and therefore visible to us in the person of Christ Jesus our redeemer. This is the oldest known icon of Christ Pantocrator, written in the sixth century and preserved in the remote monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai desert. The location enabled the image to survive the destruction of most icons during the iconoclastic era in Byzantine history, (726 to 815 AD.).[1]

There are several points of interest in the above description of the Icon of Christ Sinai. The first is that the icon is one of a handful in existence today that precedes the Second Council of Nicaea (787 AD), having escaped destruction during previous periods of iconoclasm. A second—and not unrelated—point is that the icon dates to the sixth century and is the oldest preserved icon of Christ Pantocrator, as well as the oldest known panel icon.[2]

Of even more interest is the icon’s theological significance. It portrays orthodox Christology. Christology is the area of theology devoted to explaining and understanding Jesus Christ. As noted in the above description, the icon images Christ’s face in two halves brought together seamlessly. That the icon portrays Christ’s face is not without theological significance. As noted by Michel Quenot in The Icon: Window on the Kingdom while commenting upon the significance of faces within Byzantine iconography: “As the visual center of the body, the face dominates everything else. […] [Ancient] Greeks called a slave aprosopos, i.e., he who has no face. So by assuming the features of a human face, God restored to us a face in His own image, chained as we were like slaves without faces—aprosopos—because of sin.”[3]

Returning to the description proffered by the Paracletos Monastery, this icon presents the various dualities of Christ. Besides the contrast between the severe side portraying Christ as judge and the serene side portraying Christ as saviour, one notices the Gospel side of the icon is three-dimensional and painted (or “written” as we say in the East) with a certain level of realism while the facial features on the opposite side are flattened and two-dimensional. The general absence of naturalism within iconography, Quenot notes, “serves to emphasize the spiritualization of which is taking place.”[4] This includes a lack of natural three-dimensional depth perspective. “This refusal of depth is illustrated and demonstrated very well by figures which generally stand out against a plain gold-leaf background, with neither decoration nor background scenery. Viewed in such a way outside of either time or space, they command our attention by their spiritual presence,” Quenot states.[5]

Applied to the Icon of Christ Sinai, there are two additional ways in which one may understand and interpret the two sides to Christ’s face. The first is that the two-dimensional side presents Christ of eternity outside of time and space, whereas the three-dimensional side presents Christ incarnated into the time and space of creation.  The second is that the two-dimensional side conveys Christ’s Divine nature, while the three-dimensional side presents an image of Christ’s human nature, both of which are joined perfectly in one person at the Incarnation.

Here, I am reminded of the following quotation from John Luis Antonio de Passalacqua linking iconography to Christ’s Incarnation:

By His Incarnation, the Word of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, chose to become circumscribed in the flesh by becoming man. As man, He could be perceived by other men through their senses. Hence, He could be the prototype for an icon or image. As such, an icon would be the reflection of Christ, man and God. The icon would thus participate in and reflect His nature. Thus any veneration or honour paid to the image would be paid to the Prototype Himself-in this case, The Word of God.[6]

In short, the Icon of Christ Sinai reflects the Incarnate Christ by imaging in one person a perfect union of both divine nature and human nature, present simultaneously within eternity and within time and space. As such, the Icon of Christ Sinai preserves our traditional understanding of Christology—pointing toward Christ as the true God and true man. In doing so, God gives us an image of Himself to worship.

The Icon of Christ Sinai is thus a visual apologetic for orthodox Christology. If one may conclude with an old cliché, an image is worth a thousand words.

Notes:

[1] “Jesus Christ of Sinai Icon,” Paracletos Greek Orthodox Monastery (Abbeville, South Carolina). <http://www.orthodoxmonasteryicons.com/jesus-christ-of-sinai-icon>.

[2] “Jesus Christ of Sinai Icon.”

[3] Michel Quenot, The Icon: Window on the Kingdom, translated by a Carthusian monk (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991), 93.

[4] Quenot, 87.

[5] Quenot, 106.

[6] John Luis Antonio de Passalacqua, “A Comparative Study of the Theological Approaches of Saint John of Damascus and Saint Theodore of Studion to the Iconoclastic Heresy,” Following the Star from the East: Essays in Honour of Archimandrite Boniface Luykx, edited by Andriy M. Chirovsky (Ottawa: Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies), 147.

image: Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com

Pete Vere

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Pete Vere is a canon lawyer, author, and Byzantine Catholic from Northern Ontario, Canada. He and his wife Sonya have six children. In his few spare moments, when he is not cooking or camping with his family, he enjoys hunting, reading, video games and scotch.

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