The Pantocrator in Catalan Art

I recently finished a marvelous old book, “The Tastemakers” by Russell Lynes, who for many years was the Editor-in-Chief of Harpers Magazine. The book is a survey of American taste over the centuries, but particularly focusing on the stratification of American class and the influence of technology, industrialization, communication and transportation on all aspects of American taste, from art to furniture, cars to homes. On page 260, in his chapter on the nature of the art world as it existed in his day (the 1950’s), Lynes writes:

By training the museum director considers himself primarily a man of taste. He has been schooled in connoisseurship at the Fogg Museum of Harvard University, or as a medievalist at Princeton, or in the Kunsthistorische atmosphere of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, to which so many celebrated German art historians were brought from Hitler’s clutches in the 1930’s. He has written his thesis on Catalonian [sic] altar frontals, or on Byzantine ivories, or on the Master of the Female Half-length, so he is a scholar as well.

An interesting area I have been studying in my leisure time for some years is Catalan Romanesque painting, including the aforementioned altar frontals but also wall frescoes, both of which mediums are usually among the prizes of any museum’s medieval collection. The richness of colour, the unusual mixture of Western and Eastern themes, and the remarkable state of preservation of many Catalan pieces give light to a time very stupidly referred to by many as the “Dark Ages”. There are numerous areas of study that draw my interest, but one in particular involves the Catalan interest in the concept of Christ Pantocrator, i.e. Jesus as judge of the world.

Referring to Christ as the “Pantocrator” or “Pantokrator” comes from Ancient Greek (and I am not going to pretend that I speak the language.) It is a title usually translated as meaning “Almighty” or “All-Powerful”, and was found beginning in the early Church and then continuing more commonly in the Eastern Churches than the Western. Presumably because of the varying degrees of iconoclasm present in Protestant theology, I am not familiar with any Protestant representations of the Pantocrator, though I am happy to be corrected on this point.

In artistic representation, the Pantocrator is a conceptual image of Jesus as a stern but fair judge. Christ is usually depicted with his right hand raised in blessing, and carrying the Book of the Gospels in his left hand. He is portrayed frontally to the viewer, sometimes from the waist up and sometimes seated on a throne, bearing a serious but not angry expression.

Famous and ancient versions of the Pantocrator exist in many places, particularly in Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and parts of Italy where the Byzantines held some artistic influence. Eventually the Western Churches began to move away from this representation and toward that of the “Christ in Majesty” with its own iconography, although representations of the “Last Judgment” in the West continued to reflect on the idea of Christ as the all-powerful judge of the world.

Getting back to the Catalans, there are a number of interesting images of Christ as the Pantocrator that are found in Catalan Romanesque art, as reproduced below. All of these pieces can be found in the National Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona, which has probably the best collection of Romanesque Art in the world, from paintings to sculpture to liturgical objects. They also show a transition from an Eastern iconography to a Western one.

The first of the three images selected, and arguably the most famous of the Museum’s entire collection, is that of the Pantocrator from the church of Saint Clement in Taüll, a town high in the Catalan Pyrenees. The fresco was painted around 1123 for the apse of the church, and shows Christ seated with His right hand raised in blessing, the left holding open the Gospels to the Latin text of the Gospel of St. John, Chapter 8 Verse 12, “I Am the Light of the World,” – an unusual feature not in keeping with the traditional Eastern iconography. Here, Christ is surrounded by angels, and appears above a row of the Apostles and the Blessed Virgin.

The second image is one which my father likes to call the”blasé Jesus”, given the somewhat languid expression on Jesus’ face. This is an altar frontal dating from sometime in the 12th century, contemporaneous with the previous fresco painting. It came from the town of La Seu d’Urgell, also in the Catalan Pyrenees. In this image, Christ is again seated, with His right hand raised in blessing, but the Book of the Gospels in His left hand is closed, as per the standard iconographic programme. He is flanked on both sides by the Twelve Apostles, in a very pleasing, symmetrical pyramidal composition.

Finally we have a panel dating from around 1200, that formed the underside of a baldachin at the church of Saint Martin in Tost, another town in the Pyrenees. This image is not as accomplished as the previous two, but perhaps this was because only those serving at the altar would have seen it: this underside or “tester” would have been suspended upside down between the supports of the baldachin, with the image facing toward the altar and the floor. Here again we see Christ, this time seated on a more obvious judge’s bench (complete with emroidered cushion), blessing with His right hand and holding open the Book of the Gospels in His left. This time Christ is accompanied by the Four Winged Creatures from the Book of Ezekiel, who represent the Four Evangelists.

These are only three examples of the popularity of the image of Christ as Judge that comes from the Catalan medieval world. There are others, in various states of preservation, but all with slight variations and interesting modifications of the ancient Eastern iconography to a Western sensibility. Certainly these lively and colourful images should dispel, even for the casual reader, the notion that all aspects of life in the “Dark Ages” in Europe were so very dark.

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