Magnificent Mosaic Pantocrators
“Pantocrator” is a Greek name for God, generally translated to mean “Almighty,” “All-powerful,” or “Ruler of All.” It is a theological idea better known to Eastern Orthodox or Eastern Catholic denominations than Roman Catholicism or Protestants. During the 4th century, Christians shifted the title of “Pantocrator” to more specifically mean Jesus Christ. The image of Christ Pantocrator is one of the most universally used religious images in Orthodox Christianity. Mosaics of the Pantocrator often depict Jesus as a calm but austere and omnipotent judge of humanity. These images express the Christian belief that God became flesh, in Jesus Christ, and redeemed humanity by dying on the cross and overcoming death and sin by rising three days later. Generally, in Byzantine church art, huge mosaics of Christ Pantocrator are placed in the central dome of the church, the half-dome of a vaulted recess, or the vault of the main area.
Images of the Pantocrator tend to follow the same guidelines. Ancient tradition dictates that the face of Jesus have a high, convex forehead, considered the seat of wisdom, and large, open eyes that appear to be staring into the soul of the viewer. The nose is long and slender to add an air of nobility, the mouth small and closed to indicate silent contemplation, and the hair slightly curled and flowing, to signify the never ending flow of time. The neck and body are meant to be stalwart reminders of God’s power and majesty.
Mosaics date back to the 4th century BC, when the Greeks elevated the rudimentary practice of creating patterns with pebbles into an art form. By 200 BC individual tiles, named “tesserae” by the Romans, were being used to create detailed mosaics. The tesserae were made of carefully selected colored stones, shells, beads, terracotta, and any other suitable materials available. When the Byzantine Empire rose in the 5th century BC, they began to use special tesserae, called smalti, that were made from thick sheets of colored glass, produced in northern Italy. No grout was used so that light could be reflected and refracted through the glass. They were sometimes backed with gold or silver leaf so that they sparkled with the viewer’s movements. The Byzantines were masters of covering walls and ceilings, and they set the smalti at slight angels to the wall so as to catch the light in unique ways.
Some of the world’s most famous mosaics include those that cover the apse of the Basilica of San Vitale. They are the largest Byzantine mosaics outside Constantinople and depict Emperor Justinian, who was one of the last Roman emperors. The Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople, was damaged during the fall of the Byzantine Empire, but what remains is still an exquisite mosaic Pantocrator. The ceiling in the Baptistery in Florence displays a magnificent Christ Pantocrator, made in the 12th century.
Mosaic Pantocrators are a magnificent art form that have lasted for centuries and are still practiced today.