Praying with Icons: Part 8

With The Rev. Deacon Joe Dzugan


November 21st, 2021


Christ Pantocrator


Christ Pantocrator (The All-ruler) is an icon of the Creator, the Savior, and the Judge. Here he is
portrayed frontally as a half figure. The face is authoritative, but also gentle, the eyes are wide open looking
directly at us. The two-piece robe he is wearing, a red tunic (chiton), and a blue cape (himation) symbolize
the two natures of Christ: the divine and the human. The broad band over the right shoulder, a so-called
clavus is a remnant from the Roman imperial court which indicates high official status. Christ’s hand is
raised in blessing, while he holds the book of the Gospels in his left one.

The halo surrounding his head is a well-known symbol that denotes a sanctified state. The Greek
letters “O WN” inscribed on the arms of the cross are the present tense of the verb “to be”, and may be
translated as “the abiding one” or “the one who is.” The perfect, indescribable, and absolutely transcendent
God, who presented himself to Moses as “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14), is, so to say, invisibly present
behind the Son by virtue of his own name. The initials “IC-SC” are the first and last letters of Jesus Christ.

The sign of the blessing may be interpreted as a dogmatic statement; the joining of the three fingers
refers to the Holy Trinity, whereas the two that are crossed symbolize the two natures of Christ and his
death on the cross.

According to Orthodox tradition, an icon shall be honored, because it manifests and actualizes the
spiritual reality towards which the faithful turn. In this way, an icon may be a reminder of God’s presence
and aid in prayer. Characteristics such as frontality and eye contact emphasize the “I-thou” relationship.

The use of the gold leaf is an important aesthetic agent in the art of icons, but it is also a symbol
with a specific theological significance. The gold symbolizes what is known as “the uncreated light.” The
uncreated light stands in contrast to the created light, for example, sunlight, lamplight, or candlelight which
all have the quality of lighting an object, which again casts a shadow. On an icon, the outer, created light
sources are subordinate to the uncreated light which expresses a fundamental quality of God’s nature.
Nobody has created the Creator; in other words, God is uncreated. God is the only one who exists by virtue
of himself. Everything else exists because it is created.

The Scriptures say of God that “It is he alone who dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16)
and that “God is light” (1 John 1:5). Christ speaks of himself as “the light of the world” (John 8:12). All who
come near God are illuminated and transformed by the uncreated light. The holy persons portrayed on an
icon are illuminated from the inside and made translucent because their light comes from God himself. As
light is thought to “slip through” matter, the phenomenon of cast shadows is unknown.

All theological reflection on the art of the icon has its origin in that “God created man in his image –
in his icon” (Genesis 1:26).

The Greek word “Pantocrator” is used in several places in The Revelation of St. John. In two of the
quotes, we find both the verb form “O WN” – “the abiding” or “the one who is” (used as an inscription of the
cross halo), and the name “Pantocrator” – translated as “The Ruler of All” or “The Almighty.”

“’I am the Alpha and Omega’”, says the Lord God, who is (‘O WN’ – the one who is) and who was
and who is to come the Almighty ‘Pantocrator’)” (Revelation 1:8).

“Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty (‘Pantocrator’), who was and is (‘O WN’ – the one who
is) and is to come” (Revelation 4:8).

Source: The Mystical Language of Icons.

Reflections on the Icon of Christ Pantocrator

Where do his eyes lead us, then? To our own deepest reality, to the loving self-communication of
God which is at the heart of our existence and which by sin and laziness and forgetfulness we deny; to the
wellspring of divine life in the center of what we are, the Word that calls us into being.

Remember the wonderful ending of Charles Wesley’s hymn, ‘Jesu, lover of my soul”: “Spring thou up
within my heart, Rise to all eternity.” That is what the eyes of Christ the Pantocrator direct us to. His gaze
upon us takes us to the abiding love of the creator that is expressed in the sheer fact of our being here at all;
as we look at that unchanging self-gift, we see what Jesus sees, what the Son of God sees in looking at the
Father. And we begin with him to see the Father as we look at all things and persons.

We see the distortions, the refusals, and the tragedies, and see them all the more horribly and
painfully in the light; but we don’t stop being able to see the gift of the maker who still loves in and through
it all. The dwelling of the light is in us as well – not simply in the sense in which some speak of the “Inner
Light” which guides us, but in the radiance that all creatures contain.

Jewish mysticism speaks of the Shekinah, the glorious presence of God, hidden in the world, waiting
for holy people to come and set it free; some Russian writers have used the Old Testament language of
“Sophia”, holy Wisdom, to name this hidden glory. But if Christ always looks at the Father, and if here in this
icon he looks at us steadily and faithfully; then whatever name we use we are being drawn toward this
secret fire in the heart of earthly reality.

- Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light, pp. 80-81.

In the Pantocrator icon, we see the face of Jesus Christ, but we see more than could be photographed
had a camera existed two thousand years ago. It reveals who he really is. We are face to face with the Jesus
Christ, Son of God, Savior, God incarnate, whose touch or word heals the blind, raises the dead and drives
out demons.

Looking at this icon, I am sometimes reminded of a story Dostoevsky heard from an old “babushka”
and made part of “The Brothers Karamazov.” In it, a self-centered woman is almost saved from hell by an
onion. “But she wasn’t entirely selfish,” said her guardian angel, standing before the throne of God.
“Remember, she once gave an onion to a hungry beggar.” “Yes, that’s true,” said the Creator, who chose
not to remind the angel that the onion had not been so much given as thrown and that it had been a rotten
onion. “I bless you to use an onion to lift her out of hell.” The angel took the onion and found the stingy
woman in her place in hell. She quickly grabbed hold of the onion and was being lifted up, but those
standing nearby hung on to her legs so that they could be rescued with her. The woman, still ruled by
selfishness, wanted heaven only for herself, so she kicked the others away. “Just for me,” she screamed,
“just for me!” As she said these words, the onion became so rotten that it could no longer carry her weight
and she fell back into hell.

Contemplation of the face of Christ can save us from the hell of our own fear and selfishness.

- Jim Forest, Praying with Icons, pp. 54, 56.


“Praying with Icons”, Deacon Joe Dzugan, St. Francis Episcopal Church, 2021.

Posted by Mark Hamby at 8:00 AM
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