Icon of Christ Pantocrator
Constantinople, about mid-6th century
Encaustic on wood 84 x 45.5 cm
Monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai, Egypt
Painted in colored waxes on a thin wood panel, the large icon has been cut down at the top and along the sides, accounting for the slightly off-center placement of Christ. An unpainted strip along the bottom edge indicates the panel was once inserted into a grooved frame, possibly bearing an inscription. In 1962, late overpainting was removed, and, except for a major repair to the left side of Christ's head, a few small repairs, and minor flaking and rubbing, the original surface is in remarkably good condition.
The imposing figure of Christ is represented almost frontally, his right hand raised in blessing and his left holding a large, jeweled Gospel book. He wears a tunic and himation, both of the same deep purple, the folds defined not by highlights but by darker and lighter shades of purple. The gold cross-nimbus is decorated with a punched design along the edge. Of superb artistic quality, the nearly life-size figure fills the frame, and its placement so close to the front picture plane imbues the image with a startling immediacy. The rhythmic linear movement of hairline, brow line, and eyes rivet attention on the luminous tones of the face, with its large eyes staring benignly—but not directly—at the beholder. Behind Christ, a low shallow niche implies a limited spatial depth that accommodates the slightly three-quarter pose of his torso. The inscription on the niche IC XC O ΦΙΛ[ΑΝΘΡѠ]Π[ѠΣ] may be late Byzantine.
The iconographic type of Christ Pantocrator, the all-powerful, so frequent in later Byzantine art, has been associated with the well-known lost icon of the Chalke Gate, which was probably painted shortly after 532. One of the earliest Pantocrator images occurs on the cross of Justin II, but the type became prevalent only after it was introduced on the coinage of Justinian II. Christ's youthful, serene face here differs considerably from the older and rather severe image of the canonical Pantocrator type. The face is modeled with exceptional refinement in the application of fine white highlights and deep shadows, and, despite the frontality, strict symmetry is carefully avoided in the drawing of hair, nose, and beard; the differentiation of the eyes and brows, especially, enliven and intensify the calm, somewhat detached expression. The plastic strength of the figure, its three dimensionality, and the illusionistic modeling of the face suggest the icon was painted during the classical renovatio under Justinian I; it is one of the few preiconoclast icons to survive. It was probably made in Constantinople, and sent as a gift to Mt. Sinai.