ACRED ARTS have the power to communicate strong messages about both God and man. This is true of music, painting, and architecture, as well as many other arts. Recently, a beautiful icon from the first millennium (pictured at right), accompanied by a scholarly interpretation, caught my attention.
My encounter with this icon derived from studies I have been doing on the effect of liturgy upon self-understanding. Anthropologists have grown more and more interested over recent decades in analyzing this important role of religious ritual: the formation of the “liturgical self,” if you will.
In a 2014 book entitled Liturgical Subjects: Christian Ritual, Biblical Narrative, and the Formation of the Self in Byzantium, Derek Krueger explores the self-understanding that was encouraged among participants in Byzantine liturgy from the sixth century to the turn of the eleventh. One of his most central theses is that Byzantine liturgy of this time period produced a strongly introspective conscience, resulting in a lively conception of the self as sinful, yet still able to be saved. This assertion challenges the common narrative that Augustine and the subsequent Christian West were chiefly (or exclusively) responsible for forming a pervasive, penitential self-understanding among Christians.
The Byzantine liturgical subject, according to Krueger, was formed in the tension between two gazes. The first gaze is the subject’s inward vision of his or her own self. The second gaze is that of the all-seeing God. This divine gaze is characterized both by judgment and compassion, reflecting both the virtue of justice and the virtue of mercy.
In this context, Krueger presents a thoughtful reflection on the symbolism of this striking, sixth-century icon at the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai, Egypt. The author presents this reading of the Christ Pantocrator icon:
His right hand blesses the viewer, while his left holds a jeweled Gospel Book. His body is at once in motion and at rest. The slope and angle of his shoulders suggest that Christ has just shifted his attention toward the viewer. His face looks directly out. On the left side of Christ’s face—the viewer’s right—the brow knits as the eye narrows and the face darkens in shadow; the corner of the lip turns down in a scowl. The God of judgment looks out in wrath. But on the right side of his face, Christ’s expression lightens and his mouth relaxes. His eye wells up with a compassionate tear. Intimately, the image presents Christ as God of justice and mercy, both scolding and comforting the viewer. It forms viewers as subjects of the divine gaze. (Krueger, Liturgical Subjects, 26-28)
N MODERN times, the notion of God as merciful has grown much more popular than the notion of God as just. Both aspects of the divine countenance, however, are essential for a correct understanding of God, of ourselves, and of our relationship to Him. Perhaps this icon could serve to renew appreciation for God’s justice and mercy in the world today.