Temple Gallery

Established 1959

Christ Pantocrator - exhibited at the Temple Gallery, specialists in Russian icons

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XX001. Christ Pantocrator (from a Deesis)

Macedonian (probably)
Circa 1500
28 x 19 cmClick here to convert metric size to imperial

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Christ is shown enthroned in glory in heaven. He is wearing a blue himation and a brown chiton. His right hand is raised in a gesture of oration, or teaching, while his left hand holds an open Gospel. His eyes look to his left with a serious, authoritative expression. The left is, significantly, the symbolic location of sinners at the Last Judgement, as opposed to the right where the saints stand (e.g. Matt. 25:31-46). He is seated on a bright red throne decorated by rows of white dots and with two cushions - one red, one blue. His feet rest upon a red footstall. In Jesus’ halo is a cruciform with the initials 'Ὁ ὢ Ν', which translates from the Greek as 'He who is' and derives from God's response to Moses at Mount Sinai (Exod. 3:14).[1] Around his halo his initials are inscribed in Greek: IC (our left) XC (our right).

Fig. a. Deesis, c. Bulgaria, 1495, from the Backovo Monastery, National Art Gallery, Sofia, Bulgaria

A possible prototype for the current rendering of this type of Pantocrator is a late 15th century Deesis panel from Backovo Monastery in Bulgaria (fig. a). Here we have, for example, the same striking blue himation. Yet there are important distinctions: for example, the throne is different as are the folds of Christ’s himation.

The figure of Jesus in the current version has a powerful, mystical force that is imparted through its simple, controlled, and eloquent brush strokes. There is an inner quality to Christ – his body is delicately poised in a vertical uprightness and with a sense of weightlessness. And yet there is vitality in the use of colour and the repetitive dashes of white across the vermillion throne. We find in this remarkable panel, therefore, a quality that recalls the earlier 14th century icons from the School of Ohrid which bear a ‘restrained harmony’ and a ‘composed serenity’ that merges the ‘strict Byzantine canon and a joyous Slavic sense of form’.[2]

The above features suggest that the icon was created in a monastic environment; the size further indicating that it was painted for private prayer and most likely, thus, to occupy a monk’s private cell – though it could also be for an analogia (display stand).

Though the icon may have been painted in Bulgaria, it is more likely that it was created in Macedonia around 1500. Interesting parallels can be found, for instance, with the 16th century Macedonian icon-painter Jovan Teodorov of Gramosta. His work of the same subject (fig. b) has clear resonances with our object and is closer, in terms of composition and style, than the panel from the Backovo Monastery (fig. a). As we can see, the scene is configured within the same arch-shape painted cinnabar-red; the panel is close in size (22 x 22 cm); Christ is alone in the centre panel on a very similar cinnabar-red throne decorated with impressionistic white dots; while the footstool and the shape of its cushion are again similar. In addition, the folds of the himation are almost identical in terms of positioning – in contrast again to the folds of fig. a, where they are decidedly different. It is important to add here that our icon would have had additional panels on either side with the Virgin and John the Baptist respectively, as we find in fig. b.

Fig. b (detail)

Fig. b. Deesis, Workshop of Jovan of Gramosta, c. 1535, Church of St John the Forerunner, Slepce Monastery, Demir Hisar, Macedonia

In an icon of the Transfiguration also attributed to the workshop of Jovan of Gramosta we can see a similar technique for painting the face of Christ to our object – dark underpainting with white brushstrokes giving the impression of radiantly transfigured flesh (see fig. c and details below).

Because of these similarities, it is thus possible that the current icon was created in Macedonia in Slepce Monastery in Demir Hisar where fig’s b and c were created. However, the more restrained style (along with the more powerful expression of Christ’s interiority) of our icon indicates an early date of around 1500, suggesting that our icon acted as a prototype for the works (dated to c. 1535) associated with Jovan of Gramosta.

Fig. c (detail)

Fig. c. The Transfiguration, Workshop of Jovan of Gramosta, c. 1535, Church of St John the Forerunner, Slepce Monastery, Demir Hisar, Macedonia

1. For an interesting article about the history and meaning of this inscription by Fr. Steven Bigham, 'On The Origin of Ὁ ὬΝ in The Halo of Christ', see:
2. Oto Bihalji-Merin, Byzantine Frescoes and Icons in Yugoslavia (London, Thames and Hudson, 1960), p. 14