CHRIST PANTOCRATOR: THE TRANSLATOR OF MAN
Who is Christ? Not only the one we know about from the Bible and Sacred Tradition, but also the one we communicate with on a personal level along the way by means of the Holy Spirit, who was pleased to descend on the Apostles and all those who have faith in the Son. For even if Christ says, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe’ (Jn 4:48), those who have experienced him accept what was said by Einstein as a personal confession: ‘There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.’ Christ is an experience precisely, and herein lies the greatest miracle. We experience him every day – some through their daily bread, others through trials along the way, still others by experiencing him the way the elder Iakovos Tsalikis experienced David of Euboea: ‘Because I experience Saint David within.’[i] And, ‘No one comes to the Father except through me’ (Jn 14:6).
And there is the Pantocrator from Eleshnitsa – the bitterness in his look, which flows down to his chin as he forcibly takes a sip, the image that is closest to that of St Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai.
Or the Pantocrator from Seslavtsi – the scepticism in slightly narrowed eyes mixed with a knowledge of betrayal, even by those nearest to him. ‘Because if Christ was betrayed by his closest friends, in whom should we hope in this world if not in him?’ says the Bulgarian elder Nazariy.
The Pantocrator from Alino has a wrinkle between the eyebrows like a candle (this area is one of the most important in iconography, where various symbols can be detected – a chalice, a flower, a flame, wings, a fishbone, and even eyes), like a torch burning inside the seed (the oval of his face), which cracks the seed so it can send out shoots above the black soil. Wings for a new life. Since what else is the candle’s flickering flame if not the constant flapping of wings that enclose the primeval darkness. There where the Lord made his hiding place, as it says in the Psalter, the uncreated light. Also, this is the only Pantocrator with slightly parted lips. God the Word. The young man who in the fresco Christ Angel is permeated with clarity of mind, his forehead an open book. Who in the fresco Christ Emmanuel has a stone lodged between his eyebrows – the cornerstone. Because this is the way of Christ from his first sermon in the temple as a child – from the cornerstone on which the temple is built – to the Almighty, the candle. The way from the stone to fire. The way of holiness, enlightenment. Not burning. This is why the face in Christ Emmanuel has the colour of stone, but the Pantocrator has the soft tones of flame.
The Pantocrator from Iliyantsi already bears the expression of someone to whom everything is clear. He has a spanner between his eyebrows. The spanner that is so plain to see in the fresco Christ in the Tomb (Nedelishte). There where his torso from his belly to his shoulders resembles a waistcoat ready to be taken off. Under which can be seen the true body of the one who will resurrect, of the triangle-Trinity formed by the three dots of his nipples and navel. The draining blood seems to be going in the other direction, flowing into his body, driving home like arrows that pierce him, since ‘the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force’ (Mt 11:12).
The Pantocrator from Strupets is strict, tormented, time has erased an eye. The outline from his eyebrows to his chin forms a heart. But the Saviour is also bread, like his stomach – a round loaf with the sign of the Cross in the fresco Christ in the Tomb (Strupets), into which the water flows from his throat. Bread mingled with tears, as in the folktale ‘The Three Brothers and the Golden Apple’, since this world is the world of the snake. He is also a flatfish that has been caught in the fresco Christ in the Tomb (Malo Malovo and Radibosh). Hands resting on the heart of his stomach (Alino).
There are also Eastern elements in some of the images of Christ Pantocrator (from a later iconographic period, the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries): almond-shaped eyes (Kurilovo), the letter omega, resembling an Egyptian symbol (Iskrets), emphatically folkloric details (Dolni Pasarel).
His awe-inspiring beauty (a combination of delicate features and distance) is noticeable in frescoes from the Church of the Nativity in Arbanasi and St Stephen’s Church in Nesebar. The latter has the mosaic feel of the icon of St Theodore Stratelates in Patleina Monastery. An almost ostentatious awareness of his own presence and identity. The same with which he refuses to answer the question ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?’ (Mt 26:63).
In the Pantocrator from Rakovitsa only the outline and colours are left. The details have faded over time. But still clear is the figure of a dove that ascends from the waist to the halo. This dove is perhaps a layer of the Book of the Gospels which Christ usually holds in his left hand. But here his hand, like the other, is raised aloft in blessing. With the gesture of a martyr who has nothing in common with his tormentors, the unquestioning gesture of pain and its transition to non-pain, of victory over pain.
The Christ in the Tomb by Theophanes the Cretan in St Nicholas’ Monastery at Meteora, perhaps the best expression of the way of the Saviour, the Saviour as way, which portrays his body as a ladder that climbs from the apple of the groin (temptation) through the heart of the stomach (because we feed with the heart) and the steps of the chest to the light of the mind (eternal life), through the arduous passage of the clavicle (the eye of the needle), receives its simplification and stylization in the Pantocrator from Rakovitsa. For there is an inseparable connection between the frescoes Christ in the Tomb and Christ Pantocrator. One is impossible with the other, and vice versa. Not by chance are they to be found in the most sacred parts of the church – the altar and the central dome – symbolizing Christ’s heavenly and earthly kingdom.
Christ in the Tomb is contained within the Pantocrator – the outstretched Word that flies towards the Light. Just as Noah’s dove found land. Just as the dove of the Holy Spirit strains towards the Virgin Mary’s womb, towards Christ as he is baptized in the river Jordan.
God, as well as being Maker of all things visible and invisible, is also a Translator, our Guide, who carries us through the narrow passage. Who translates heavenly things for our weak human eyes, so they don’t go blind like those of Saul on the road to Damascus.
‘Action precedes divine vision,’ says the elder Ieronymos of Aegina. ‘God first created the body and afterwards breathed in the soul.’[ii]
So, creating man from the dust in a direct, literal way and then breathing into his nostrils the breath of life, God gave a spiritual dimension to his translation, affording it the only true meaning – that of the Holy Spirit.
Text by Tsvetanka Elenkova
Photographs and English translation by Jonathan Dunne
[i] Stylianos Papadopoulos, The Garden of the Spirit: Saint Iakovos of Evia, p. 178.
[ii] Peter Botsis, The Elder Ieronymos of Aegina, p. 223.