Wednesday, May 25, 2011

(1) Pantocrator

I must admit to having an affinity for cathedrals in Washington.
Besides the National Cathedral, I happened to visit the Shrine of
the Immaculate Conception. It was an astounding place, really
different, in that it was a huge Byzantine church replete with tile,
icons, and beautiful side chapels where one could go and lose
one's self.

One could not miss the great "Christ in Majesty," a massive icon
situated in the back of the church. It depicted a youthful Christ,
whose solar crown shot forth fire as if in the form of a cross.
However, the face of this particular Christ was different, not
Semitic in detail. Neither was this icon a depiction of the suffering
Christ. Rather, the face was strong, almost fierce, sheathed by
a head of blonde hair.

Well I had to ask about this. A docent told me the story; and it
was the first time that I had heard the term "Pantocrator," which
means the Lord of the Universe, of the Celestial Realm, Cosmic,
having Dominion over Nature. The depiction in the Shrine
was borrowed from likenesses of Christ found in the Roman

Frankly, this particular Pantocrator took my breath away. I
was in awe, having never understood Christ in this manner.
Interestingly, here I was, at the point where I felt I needed
somehow to translate my concept of Christ into a more
universal perspective.

Running to the dictionaries, to the encyclopedias, I discovered
that the Pantocrator was part and parcel of Early Christian thought.
Scholars believe that they very earliest icon of the Pantocrator
was found at an ancient monastery in the Egyptian Sinai. Then
this particular iconography proliferated in the Aegean world, and
eventually into the West.

I talked to friends--and no one knew anything about the Pantocrator!
How could such an incredible concept of the Christ become lost?
After some digging, I discovered that the Pantocrator has never
been lost. It just changed its guise down through the centuries,
operating almost in memetic fashion as the "Christ of Faith." I
discovered, too, that as an *ideaI* that continues and continues,
moving forth peoples, through their hope and aspirations,
throughout the world, that this great Universal Christ is actually a
CONTINUUM with roots in the pagan world, as the Logos of the
ancient Greek philosophers unto the Cosmic Christ. I realized
that the Pantocrator incorporated all this.

Lucky me! Living in the Washington area I had access to so much.
All I had to do was wait for something to drop in my lap. It did.
The National Gallery of Art was providing a weekend seminar on
Byzantine Iconography presented by Jaroslav Pelikan, then an
eminent church historian from Yale University.

Iconography, of course, is about icons--images or representations
that can be produced from various materials. Jaroslav Pelikan
talked mainly about the earlier imagery, those Christian icons that
dated from the 6th century c.e. onward. But occasionally Pelikan
would slip in some comments that caused my ears to perk. He
talked about the pagan and early Christian connections when it
came to the Logos. Long held as the Ground of Being, the Reason
that stands behind all Creation, by both Platonist and Stoic
philosophers, Christian Fathers in turn declared Jesus Christ as
the "Incarnation of the Logos." This declaration was the point where
Pagan Philosophy and Christianity met. Professor Pelikan also
talked about what the Church calls the "Christ of Faith," as discussed
in his book "Jesus through the Centuries."

After the seminar I rushed out looking for this book. And, again, the
incredulous: the book was dedicated "To the Benedictines of Saint
John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota." It would seem no matter
where you turn, you can't run ahead of those savvy monks!

As for the Pantocrator, what early Christianity seemingly did was give
this great Intelligent Force a living face when it declared Jesus as the
"Incarnation of the Logos." This great Cosmic Energy was no longer
just a pantheistic concept, but rather had become a Person among
us--the Pantocrator that has continued with us down through the
centuries, ever shifting its imagery within our minds, ever moving us
forward in our Passage.