Sunday, November 20, 2011

“Jesus Christ is Lord” – Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Christ in Majesty, Codex Aureus of Lorsch
German, 778-830, folio 72v
Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana
Jesus said to his disciples:
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him.
And he will separate them one from another,
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats."
Matthew 25:31-32

Portion of Gospel for the Solemnity of Christ the King,
Year A,

The idea of Jesus as king of the universe goes back to the earliest decades of Christian life. In Philippians 2:9-11, written sometime between 55 and 63 AD, St. Paul quotes what is believed to be one of the earliest Christian hymns which proclaims “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” at whose name “every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:11 and 10).
In Christian art, however, the visual representation of Christ as King and Lord of the universe took a while to develop. It was not until the 4th century, when Christianity had become a tolerated religion and was free to construct buildings specifically for Christian worship, that this image began to appear. Earlier, images of Christ, made during the days of persecution and a need for concealment, had been symbolic (such as the well-known sign of the fish) or had been disguised (as for instance, the image of the Good Shepherd or the Philosopher). 1  With the easing of these pressures, and the accompanying sudden acquisition of Imperial favor and Imperial involvement; as well as in the course of thrashing out the Church’s understanding of the nature of Jesus as both human and divine, these images were superseded by others which reflected the kingly understanding already apparent in the hymn quoted by St. Paul.

Augustus Primaporta,
Roman, 1at century
Vatican, Vatican Museums

The obvious place to which 4th century Christians looked for ideas in how to portray the human-divine person of Jesus as King was to already existing images of the Emperor. These images went back as far as the time of Augustus in the early 1st century (as for instance in the Augusta Primaporta).

But they were also as recent as Constantine’s own colossal statue of around 315. This gigantic statue, parts of which can be seen today in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, was placed around 315 in the secular basilica, now known as the Basilica of Constantine, close to the Coliseum. Modeled on the famous colossal statue of the god, Zeus, at Olympus, it showed Constantine seated, holding a scepter in his upraised right hand. Reconstructions suggest that he held an orb in his now missing left hand.

Colossal Statue of Constantine
(Computer reconstruction)
Rome, 4th century
The marble parts are today in the Capitoline Museum in Rome

It is, therefore, not surprising that the earliest images of Christ as King portray Him in a similar way. In one of the two apse mosaics from the tomb of Constantine’s daughter, Constantina, dated to around 350, Christ appears as if an Emperor. As described by Prof. Johannes Deckers “Christ is portrayed as Pantocrator, enthroned atop a transparent blue sphere symbolizing the cosmos. Although he still wears the traditional costume of a philosopher, consisting of tunic, cloak and sandals, now his garments are either gold or purple adorned with wide gold stripes like those of the emperor. His bearded head is surrounded by a nimbus, a device employed in earlier Roman art to distinguish gods, personifications, and deified emperors. Christ hands Peter a pair of keys symbolic of the powers entrusted to him. Peter receives the keys in humility, his hands draped in his cloak. …. it is as though we are witnessing a ceremony at the court of the emperor of heaven. Peter approaches Christ in the way etiquette demanded that an official approach the emperor on receiving an appointment. .. Christ appears like the lord of heaven between fiery clouds, enthroned above the spherical cosmos. To see how explicitly Christ is cast in the role of n emperor, one need only glance at a traditional formula adapted for various rulers in Roman times.”2 

Christ in Majesty
Mosaic, Roman, c. 350
Rome, Church of Santa Costanza

However, there are also significant differences between the image of Christ and the image of the Emperor for Christ holds, not a scepter and an orb, but keys and a scroll, very much as He had in the image of the Traditio Legis. He is not the worldly ruler, but a ruler whose kingdom is one of heavenly power, based on the Scriptures.

A few decades later, in the last decade of the 4th century, the Roman church of Santa Pudenziana was decorated with an apse mosaic in which the theme of Christ as ruler is still close to that of the Emperor. This image shows Christ, seated on a throne and surrounded by the Apostles, as well as by two female figures that may represent the Old and New Testaments.

Christ in Majesty,
Mosaic, Roman, ca. 400
Rome, Church of Santa Pudenziana

Compositionally, it is not unlike the silver plate, called the Missorium of Theodosius I, which is almost exactly contemporary. However, again there are points of departure between the images. In Santa Pudenziana, Christ once again holds a document which now begins to resemble a codex (a bound book, instead of a scroll) and His right hand begins to assume a blessing gesture.
Silver Plate known as the Missorium of Theodosius I
Roman, ca. 388
Madrid, Academia Real de Historia

From this point on the image of Christ as King, also called Christ Pantocrator or Christ in Majesty, seems to have become fairly well set. 

We can trace it in many different media through the remainder of the early Christian period,

into the Byzantine

Christ in Majesty
Mosaic, Byzantine, ca. 526-47
Ravenna, Church of San Vitale

Christ in Majesty
Ivory, German, 11th century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Christ in Majesty
Enamel book cover plaque
French, Limoges, early 13th century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Christ in Majesty
From Psalter of St. Louis and Blanche of Castille
French, ca. 1225
MS Arsenal 1186, fol. 28
Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France

And Renaissance periods.  Beginning with the middle ages, it became merged with the image of Christ the Judge from the Last Judgment.

Fra Angelico, Christ in Majesty
Italian, 1447
Orvieto, Cathedral, Chapel of San Brizio

Hans Memling, Christ Surrounded by Angels
Center of triptych
Netherlandish, 1480s
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten

Raphael, Disputà
Italian, 1510-1511
Vatican, Stanza della Segnatura

Michelangelo, Last Judgment (detail)
Italian, 1537-1541
Vatican, Sistine Chapel

This visual tradition leads right up to the 20th century, with the huge mosaic of Christ in Majesty in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D. C., executed by Jan Henryk de Rosen, completed in 1959.

Jan Henryk de Rosen, Christ in Majesty
Polish, 1959
Washington, D.C., National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
On December 11, 1925, at the conclusion of the 1925 Holy Year, Pope Pius XI established the feast of the Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ, with his encyclical, Quas Primas (The first (encyclical) which). In the encyclical Pius XI traced the roots of the title in the Bible and in Sacred Tradition and its meaning for the entire world.  He fixed the date of the feast “on the last Sunday of the month of October - the Sunday, that is, which immediately precedes the Feast of All Saints”.3

On February 14, 1969, following Vatican Council II, Pope Paul VI in his motu proprio, Mysterii paschalis (The Paschal Mystery), promulgated a revised calendar of liturgical celebrations for the universal Church.4  As one of the revisions the Solemnity of Christ the King was moved to its present location of the last Sunday in Ordinary Time, as a fitting way to mark the close of the Church’s liturgical year. This move gave to the feast a slightly different, more cosmic, emphasis, an emphasis that had, in fact, been latent in the image of Christ in Majesty for centuries. For, at this time of the year, that is in the weeks leading up to and including the first Sunday of Advent (the Sunday which begins the new liturgical year), we are presented with readings that deal with the end of time and the final judgment of the world when, at His second coming, Christ will return to judge the world. Therefore, the image of Christ as King of the Universe and Lord of Time, with its undertones of relationship to scenes of the Last Judgment has found a match in the liturgical feast.

Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat!
1. Spier, Jeffrey; Fine, Steven; Charles-Murray, Mary; Jensen, Robin M.; Deckers, Johannes G. and Kessler, Herbert L. Picturing the Bible: the Earliest Christian Art, Catalog of the exhibition held at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX, November 28, 2007-March 30, 2008, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 13, 51-64. For information on this past exhibition see

2. Spier, et al., p. 95.



© M. Duffy, 2011

1 comment:

Unknown said...

The remnants of the statue of Constantine - marble or bronze - are not at the Vatican Museums. They are at the Capitoline Museums.