Friday, November 18, 2022

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

Christ in Majesty, Codex Aureus of Lorsch
German, c. 778-830
Alba Julia (RU), Biblioteca Documenta Batthyaneum
MS R II 1, fol. 72v

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course of thrashing out the Church’s understanding of the nature of Jesus as both human and divine, these images were superseded by others which reflected the kingly understanding already apparent in the hymn quoted by St. Paul.

Developing the Iconography

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).

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

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, c. 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, c. 388
Madrid, Academia Real de Historia

In the image used in the sixth century church of San Vitale in Ravenna, at that time the Italian capital of the emerging Byzantine Empire (based in Constantinople, today's Istanbul) Christ again holds a scroll or possibly a codex in his left hand, while presenting the wreath of heavenly victory to the emperor, who is presented to him by an angel.

Christ in Majesty
Mosaic, Byzantine, c. 526-547
Ravenna, Church of San Vitale

Byzantine Tradition

These late antique images formed the basis for the image of the Christ Pantocrator, which became widespread in Byzantine and Byzantine-derived works.

The earliest known image of the specific type known as the Pantocrator comes from the sixth century, from the monastery of Saint Catherine at Sinai.  It is a more focused view of the upper body of Christ, which appears to derive from the Christ in Majesty figures in the earlier mosaic works.

Earliest Known Image of Christ as Pantocrator
Byzantine, 6th Century
Sinai (Egypt), Saint Catherine's Monastery

This became the favored image for the Byzantine world, frequently appearing in mosaic form wherever the Greek Church was established, as far west as southern Italy and Sicily and in the Greek derived Churches of Eastern Europe and Russia.  

Apse Mosaic
Byzantine, 1148
Cefalu (Sicily), Cathedral

Apse Mosaic
Byzantine, c. 1180-1190
Monreale (Sicily), Cathedral

Icon of Christ Pantocrator
Russian, 1363
Saint Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum 

However, the Byzantine tradition also continued to use image of a full-scale seated Christ as well.

Basilius, Deesis
From the Melisande Psalter
Byzantine (Jerusalem), c. 1131-1143
London, British Library
MS Egerton 1139, fol. 12v

Ascension with Christ in Majesty 
From a Gospel Book
Eastern Mediterranean, Possible Cyprus or Palestine, c. 1175-1250
London, British Library
MS Harley 1810, fol. 135v

Deesis Mosaic
Byzantine, c. 1260-1270
Istanbul, Hagia Sophia

Elias Moskos, Christ in Majesty
Greek, 1653
Recklinghausen, Ikonen-Museum

Medieval Europe

By the middle ages, in what had been the western half of the Roman Empire, the image of the seated Christ, holding a codex and blessing appeared in many media, large and small scale.  These included book covers, book illustrations, sculpture, wall paintings and metalwork.  Examples come from all over the Christian west.

Christ in Majesty
From the Gospel Book of Godescalc
German (Rheinland), c. 781-783
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 1203, fol. 3r

Christ in Majesty and the Visitation
From Gospels of Saint-Médard de Soissons
German (Aachen), c. 800
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 8850, fol. 124r

Christ in Majesty
From the Gospels of Lothair
French (Tours), c. 849-851
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 266, fol. 2v

Christ in Majesty with Prophets and Evangelists
From the Codex Aureus of Saint Emmeram
French, c. 870-879
Munich, Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek
MS Cod. lat. 14000, fol. 6v

Christ in Majesty
From the Sacramentary of Charles the Bald
French, c. 870
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 1141, rol. 5r

Christ in Majesty
From the Benedictional of Aethelwold
English, c. 963-984
London, British Library
MS Additional 49598, fol. 70r

Christ in Majesty Surrounded by the Evangelists and their Symbols
From the Gospels of the Sainte-Chapelle
German (Treves), c. 984
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 8851, fol. 1v

Christ in Majesty
Ivory, German, 11th century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

By the beginning of the eleventh century (1000-1100) the image of Christ in Majesty was widespread.  Christ is seated on a throne instead of the globe, most often he holds a book in one hand and makes a gesture of blessing with the other.  He is usually surrounded by a mandorla, around which there may be angels, the evangelists or their symbols, and sometimes prophets and saints.  

The Great Alleluia
From the Bamberg Apocalypse
German (Reichenau), c. 1010
Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek Bamberg
MS Msc.Bibl.140, fol. 47v

Lintel with Christ in Majesty
French, c. 1019-1020
Saint-Genis-des-Fontaines, Abbey Church

Capital with Christ in Majesty
French, c. 1050
Paris, Musée  de Cluny, Musée nationale du Moyen Âge

Christ in Majesty
Tympanum of the West Portal
French, c. 1090
Charlieu, Church of Saint-Fortunat

Christ in Majesty
From the Shaftesbury Psalter
English, c. 1125-1150
London, British Library
MS Landsdowne 383, fol. 14v

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the city of Limoges in south-central France (long been famous for its enamelwork on copper and continuing this tradition of enamel painting to this day through its famous porcelain factories) produced what must have been thousands of variations on this image for use in portable altars, covers for liturgical books and other liturgical equipment.  

Only this year (2022) have I found that the manuscript illuminators of medieval Limoges produced virtually identical works.  This suggests that there was a commonly agreed upon model for producing this image in the city.

Christ in Majesty
From a Missal
French (Limoges), 12th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9438, fol. 58v

Christ in Majesty
French (Limoges), c. 1175-1200
Paris, Musée  de Cluny, Musée nationale du Moyen Âge

Book-Cover Plaque with Christ in Majesty
French (Limoges), c. 1185-1210
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Book-Cover Plaque with Christ in Majesty
French (Limoges), c. 1200
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Enamel Cover of Gospel Book with Christ in Majesty
French (Limoges), c. 12th-13th Century
London, British Library
MS Additional 27926

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

Plaque from a Book Cover with Christ in Majesty
French (Limoges), 13th Century
Vatican City, Musei Vaticani

These works from Limoges were spread all over Europe and must have had a very great influence on the artists in the countries that received their objects.

Christ in Majesty
From the Westminster Psalter
English (Westminster or St. Albans), c. 1300
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 A XXII, fol. 14r

Christ in Majesty
From a Psalter
French (North French), c. 1210
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 238, fol. 30v

Christ in Majesty
From Psalter of Saint Louis and Blanche of Castille
French, c. 1225
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 1186, fol. 28r

Christ in Majesty
From the Portada del Sarmental
Spanish, c. 1235
Burgos, Cathedral

Christ in Majesty
From Images de la vie du Christ et des saints
Flemish (Hainaut), c. 1285-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition francaise 16251, fol. 51v

Christ in Majesty
From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1300-1325
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 160, fol. 1r

The Queen Mary Master, Christ in Majesty
From the Queen Mary Psalter
English (Westminster), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VII, fol. 298v

Atelier of Jean Pucelle, Christ in Majesty
From the Breviary of Belleville
French (Paris), c. 1323-1326
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS latin 10483, fol. 213r

Christ in Majesty
From Meditationes vitae Christi
Italian (Siena), c. 1330-1340
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Italien 115, fol. 4r

Niccolo di Giacomo di Nascimbene, aka Niccolo da Bologna, Christ in Majesty with Saints
Cutting from a Choir Book
Italian (Bologna), c. 1350-1375
London, British Library
MS Additional 22310, fol. 10 

Christ in Majesty
From the Breviary of Martin of Aragon
Spanish (Catalonia), c. 1398-1403 & 1420-1430
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Rothschild 2529, fol. 104v 

Christ in Majesty with the Twelve Elders
From the Liber Floridus by Lambert de Saint-Omer
Flemish (Lille), 1460
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 72 A 23, fol. 11v 

The Renaissance

The Renaissance period brought some changes to the use of the image of Christ in Majesty.

For one thing, it returned to use as a decoration for the semi-domes of the churches that were being built according to classical principles, first as a continuation of the mosaic tradition and later in newly realistic paintings.

Apse Mosaic of Christ in Majesty
Italian, 1297
Florence, Church of San Miniato al Monte

Boccaccio Boccaccino, Christ in Majesty with the Patron Saints of Cremona
Italian, 1506
Cremona, Cathedral

And it appeared in the newly introduced form of panel paintings.

Giotto, The Stefaneschi Triptych
Italian, c. 1330
Vatican City, Pinacoteca Vaticana

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

The Tradition Continues

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, Originally published, 2011. Revised with additional material and new images,  2022.