Starting in the 4th century, the Roman church adopted images of the regnant Christ as sitting on a throne flanked by saints (usually Peter and Paul), as in
this sarcophagus fragment
and in the catacombs painting at right, where he holds a book on his knee.
This development is related to the genesis, also in the 4th century, of the
iconographic type, in which the enthroned Christ entrusts the Law to Paul and the "keys of the kingdom" to Peter. He is also enthroned in
Last Judgment images
from at least the 6th century. In the 6th-century
apse at San Vitale,
Ravenna, the "throne" is a globe representing the universe.
In some cases, Christ was represented symbolically by an enthroned cross (example). In this apse from the 11th or 12th century, he is represented by both the cross and his own face. In later images angels are added to the entourage (as in the image above) or replace the saints entirely (example).
By at least the late 5th century this iconographic type had diffused as far as Milan (example) and Alexandria (example) and even to an Arian facility in Ravenna. Later versions will have the image in a mandorla or circle (example). After the 12th century it became less common in the West, where images of the Madonna Enthroned gained popularity. (An important exception is the apse mosaic at St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome.)
Another early type had Christ treading on a lion and a serpent (example), reflecting Psalm 90(91):13, "Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk: and thou shalt trample under foot the lion and the dragon."
Eastern churches developed a similar iconographic type known as Christ Pantocrator. Portrayed half-height, Christ looks directly at the viewers and blesses them with his right hand. In his left he holds a book.1 The earliest extant example is the 6th-century St. Catherine's Pantocrator (second picture at right), but it may have been based on earlier works that disappeared during the Iconoclast ascendancy (Chatzidakis, 202-204).
The Christ Pantocrator became a common feature of Eastern apse mosaics (example). In Russia a version with a full-height Christ was adopted by iconographers in the 12th and 13th centuries for use on the iconostasis (example).2
THE HAND GESTURES
In the St. Catherine's icon, as in several of the images cited above, the thumb of the right hand touches the fourth finger (the one next to the pinky). A number of sites on the web say this began as an oratorical gesture, but I have not found it in any statues of Roman orators, nor is it mentioned in Quintilian's extensive survey of hand gestures.3
In another early pattern the fourth and pinky fingers curve down while the thumb and other fingers point up, as in the third picture at right. This latter configuration became the norm in western images of Christ in majesty, except for Last Judgments.
IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION
As Son of God, Word of God, King of Kings, etc., Christ appears in various passages of the Book of Revelation (example).
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-08-11, 2016-09-28, 2016-12-07, 2017-02-19.