Icons of Christ

Icon of Christ Made with no Hands from Holy Trinity
Church (OCA), Winnipeg, MB – Vera Senchuk, iconographer

Icon of Christ Made with no Hands

The Church teaches us that icons have been used among Christians since apostolic times. Christ made the first image of Himself by pressing a cloth to His face. According to Church teaching, when the cloth was released, an image of Jesus was on it. Christ did this to provide a tangible visible image of Himself to King Abgar who had sent a messenger inviting Jesus to come to visit him in Edessa. Iconographers have copied this image for centuries. The specific style is known as the “Icon of Christ Made with no Hands”. This image is important because it validates iconography by testifying to the dogma of Christ’s Incarnation. The 7th Ecumenical Council gave special recognition to this icon and it is particularly venerated on the Feast of Orthodoxy on the first Sunday of Lent.

Christ the Pantocrator

For many Christians it is a matter of faith that the first iconographer was St. Luke the Evangelist, who was the first man to create images of the Virgin Mary and Christ. While there are several icons existing today that by church tradition are attributed to St. Luke, the provenance of any icon from the first century is impossible to verify. One of the twentieth century’s most widely read experts in Eastern Rite iconography, Leonid Ouspensky, wrote of this tradition: “This teaching shows that the image is necessarily inherent in the very essence of Christianity, from its inception, since Christianity is the revelation by God Man not only of the Word of God, but also of the image of God.”

Christ Pantocrator – from the historic church
of the Holy Trinity at Stary Wostock, AB

“Pantocrator” is a Greek word and this icon portrays Christ as the great judge and ruler of all things. The word appears in Revelations 1: 8 in the original Greek text to describe God: “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” In the English text, “Pantocrator” is usually translated to “Almighty”.

Creating an image of God is controversial. However, St. Paul wrote of Jesus Christ that “He is the image of the invisible God . . .” (Colossians 1: 15) and the Greek theologians interpreted this to mean He is the physical image of God’s reality. It could be argued that, since the image of the Pantocrator originates from the first icon painted by St. Luke the Evangelist and all images of Christ are based on that “proto-icon”, there has been a reasonable likeness of Jesus past down to us. The image of a man in his early thirties with longish hair, a short beard, and dark Semitic features is truly a “classic” image, which has been repeated for centuries.
Gaze upon the image of Christ and meditate upon it. Take time before or after a service to stand directly in front of the icon of Christ and pray. The Pantocrator’s image expresses the human features of the Divine Majesty of God made flesh. While the look on His face is grave, it portrays the sweetness and compassion of Him who redeems us.

The Pantocrator often holds a book or a scroll in His left hand while raising His right hand in the sign of a blessing. The book or scroll usually illustrates a quotation from one of the gospels and this may vary from one icon of the Pantocrator to another. In other cases, the book may be closed or it may hold the symbols of the alpha and omega (ΑΩ).

The Pantocrator from the iconostas of St. Mary’s Ukrainian
Catholic Church in Winnipeg, MB

The icon of the Pantocrator reveals, “The LORD reigns, He is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed in majesty and is armed with strength. The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.” (Psalm 93: 1). Frequently, an icon of Our Lord will depict Him wearing a blue outer garment over a red robe. In this instance, the blue himation (outer garment) and the red robe illustrate Our Lord's two natures — human and divine. When He was made flesh and born of a human birth, He took on our human nature. Therefore, the blue representing humanity covers the red that represents divinity.

In icons of Jesus Christ, we usually see the “IC XC” inscribed close to Him and the omicron, omega and nu (ό ώ ν) appear on a cross in His halo. Icons of the Pantocrator may depict Christ alone, as is the case when located on the iconostasis, or may depict Christ with saints, as in the case of the Deisis. An image of the Pantocrator may be full-length or it may be half-length in composition. In many churches the Pantocrator appears in the interior of the central dome with just His bust portrayed. In this instance the icon of Christ is at the highest point in the temple, thus representing that He is Lord over all things.

The Pantocrator in the central dome of St. John the
Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church, Ottawa, ON

Christ Enthroned in Majesty and Christ as High Priest

Christ the King is portrayed majestically robed on a throne and wearing a crown. This image of Christ may depict him alone or with saints and angels on each side in a Deisis fashion.

Our Lord may also be portrayed in the vestments and mitre of a bishop, which reminds us that Christ, is the very centre and foundation of the Church and first hierarch. An example of this is found in the historic Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Canora, Saskatchewan. Note that Christ is enrobed with the vestments of a bishop and He wears a crown much like a bishop’s mitre. On the other hand, He also holds the orb and sceptre that are symbols of a monarch.

Christ enthroned wearing the vestments of the
High Priest – Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Canora, SK

The Deisis is the praying icon of intercession. The word is from Greek meaning "prayer" or "supplication" and at the centre of this icon we see Christ as Pantocrator with saints on each side of Him gesturing in a manner revealing that the saints can intercede for us on our behalf. In the most basic form of this icon one only finds the Virgin Mary on His right and St. John the Baptist on His left. In other forms of this icon any number of saints may be placed in order of rank to the left and to the right of Christ — each one shown petitioning Christ on our behalf.

The Deisis icon from Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Manornitz, SK

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

The Sacred Heart of Jesus is a religious piety dedicated to the reverence of Christ’s heart and it speaks to our Lord’s sacred love for all humankind. This practice of devotion to Christ’s heart originated in the Roman Catholic Church but it gained popularity in the Greek Catholic Church in Canada, particularly during the period when a significant percentage of Canadian Greek Catholic priests had been trained in Roman Catholic seminaries. This devotion emphasizes the essential Christian model of both loving and worshiping Jesus. The origin of this practice comes from a French Roman Catholic nun, Marguerite Marie Alacoque, who spoke of learning this devotion from Christ, Himself, in visions.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus is a sentimental image -
Sts. Constantine and Helena Ukrainian Catholic Church, south of Buchanan, SK

Throughout Canada, there are many examples of Greek Catholic churches that have the Sacred Heart as their patron and the image is commonly found in many of the early Greek Catholic churches. However, the image is increasingly uncommon in parishes that seek a more authentic style of Byzantine iconography. Perhaps this is because the Sacred Heart of Jesus image is often imbued with a certain sense of sentimentality that is generally avoided in traditional iconography. In traditional Eastern Rite iconography, the Sacred Heart of Jesus is somewhat like forcing a square peg into a round hole. It does not fit. Nonetheless, one cannot ignore the popularity of this image in Ukrainian churches.

The Sacred Heart has almost no popularity in the Orthodox Church which views it as peculiarity of the Western Church with no theological validity. Therefore, it is rare to see the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Ukrainian Orthodox churches, but one occasionally sees such a picture in some of the older parishes. This is explained firstly by a lack of sources for iconography that once existed in Canada and secondly by a lack of theological knowledge in some rural Orthodox Parishes.

Calendar print of the Sacred Heart of Jesus found in a pioneer Orthodox church

Other Images of Christ

There are innumerable prototypes for icons of Christ if we count images of our Lord that portray biblical scenes, particularly such as certain major feast days like the Theophany, the Transfiguration, the Entrance into Jerusalem, etc.

A particularly compelling mosaic of Christ is situated over the front entrance of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church in Winnipeg. While the face is rendered as in the image of the Pantocrator, the arms are outstretched in a most welcoming pose.

Mosaic of Christ located over the entrance to St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church, Winnipeg, MB

Many Ukrainian churches will even feature pictures of Christ that originate from scripture but are not associated with a recognised feast day, for example, Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. In other instances, one sees pictures of Christ in the context of a lesson that may have no basis in scripture such as Jesus knocking at a door. While such images may be beautiful, they do not necessarily fall into what is traditionally called an icon and would perhaps be more accurately described as religious art.

Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane -
from St. James Orthodox Church, Beaver Lake, AB