Earlier today I submitted an article to a journal using hagiography to dispute the idea that in the Byzantine world Christ was distant from worshippers, the unapproachable God, the Pantokrator on high. Because I’m a lumper, I could not help bringing in, alongside many references to Late Antique ascetic literature East and West, a couple of references to sixth-century art.
When people think of Christ Pantokrator, the image from many Eastern Christian domes springs to mind, such as this eleventh-century one from the Church of the Holy Apostles, Athens (my photo):
Or, better, this famous thirteenth-century mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Constantinople:
I didn’t mention these in the article, but for many people they convey distance and inaccessibility of the divine Person.
A Justinianic mosaic that I did mention and which can be seen to communicate a similar idea of unapproachable glory and Light is the icon of the Transfiguration from St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai:
The thing is, when I read monastic literature of the fifth and sixth centuries, I do not find an inaccessible Christ. Although there is evidence of the growing cult of the saints (see Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints — and I’ve read a good review of Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?), the piety of the vast majority of early Byzantine ascetic/mystic/monastic texts is Christocentric, and Christ is not far or unapproachable to His followers.
Thus, the preferred Christ Pantokrator is sixth-century, not eleventh or thirteenth. Like the Transfiguration, it comes from St Catherine’s, Sinai:
This is one of the most famous icons in the world; it is the first of the Pantokrator type, from what I recall, and one of the oldest Eastern Mediterranean images of Christ to survive. Christ Pantokrator appears here with one half of his face gentle, one half stern. He is the perfect Desert abba, if you think of it.
The oldest Coptic icon may also be sixth-century and currently resides in the Louvre (I’ve seen it!). It is a different vision of Christ from any of the above — Christ and Apa Mena (my photo):
Christ is Pantokrator. All-powerful. For He is the Second Person of the Trinity.
Christ can also be our Friend. For such is how He described Himself to His Disciples.
Come, let us follow Him.