January 2009 - Vol. 26

Christ Ruler of All

portraying Christ in early Christian art 

by Don Schwager

The depiction of Christ in art goes back as early as the second century AD. One of the earliest known images, depicted in numerous 2nd century paintings and sculpture, is the figure of the Good Shepherd with a lamb around his shoulders, representing Christ's care for those he has saved. In the 3rd and 4th centuries, more varied images of Christ and scenes from the gospels appear, as well as scenes from the Old Testament. Depictions of Christians at prayer with raised hands and the Agape feast also appear at this period. The use of icons in homes and churches became widespread in the 4th and 5th centuries. 

The iconoclast wars, first among Eastern Christians in the 8th century and later during the Reformation in the West, centered on the Old Testament prohibition of graven images (Exodus 20:4). Christians have argued for and against images of Christ ever since. The fact of the Incarnation God becoming man and taking on human flesh has inspired artists throughout the centuries to recount the gospel accounts of Christ as well as other biblical stories throughout the Old and New Testaments.

Icon of Christ Pancrator (Ruler of All)
“Christ Pancrator,” one of the earliest surviving icons of Christ, dating from the early 6th century, is housed in the church at St. Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai, Egypt. The icon is painted with colored beeswax applied with spatula (encaustic technique) onto a wooden panel and measures 84 cm by 45.5 cm.

The Greek word pancrator means “ruler of all.” The face was most likely copied from the “Myron” in the Greek city of Odessa, an image of Christ's face on a cloth now lost, which many believe to be the cloth that covered the face of Jesus for his burial.

In the icon, Christ is robed in a purple tunic, a color which signifies royalty. He is holding a copy of the Gospels in his left hand while his right hand is raised in blessing. The icon depicts Christ as both Ruler of all, thus our Judge, and as Savior of the world who brings us the Gospel, the good new of salvation and living word of God. The right side of his face (from the viewer's perspective), shows him as the Judge who sees all, and the left side as the Savior who looks upon us with his mercy.

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Christ Pancrator

6th century icon from St. Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai, Egypt

a small carved statue of the Good Shepherd carrying a lamb, found in one of the catacombs in Rome, dating from the 2nd or 3rd century now in the Vatican Museums

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