Symbolism found in icons

By Linda Zahorik | November 20, 2013

Imagine, as an avid sports fan, you open today’s paper and see a headline stating that Pope Francis has been given a divine revelation that, no matter what, this year, the Packers are going to the Super Bowl and they will win!  That surge of excitement is how the feast of Christ the King should make you feel. Jesus beat all the odds; despite being born in a stable, despite preaching a way of life that was contrary to the status quo, despite having some followers who assured him of their loyalty only to leave him in the dark, despite a horrific death, Jesus became victorious. Death has no hold over him. Our excitement this weekend should almost be palpable!

In the Western church, images of Christ as King are not very common. You may catch an image on a piece of stained glass, but as for statues or pictures “our Jesus” resembles a typical Hebrew man of his time: a simple tunic, perhaps a mantle, maybe with a head covering. However, in some Orthodox churches — especially most Russian Orthodox churches of the last century — the depiction of Christ the King contrasts this image greatly.

In these more modern Orthodox icons, as well as those of Melkite Catholic churches, Jesus may be seen with a white under-robe. White was worn by Jewish kings. It is a color of purity and sanctification. Also, because it reflects the spectrum of all colors, it is seen as the color of fullness and completion.

These more modern icons of Jesus as Christ the King will show him in a red mantle. Red represents our life source, the blood that runs through our veins. It is also the color of suffering and redemption. In times past, robes of crimson were worn by the wealthy. Greeks and Romans used this color for military cloaks. The cloak that the soldiers put on Jesus during his scourging was crimson red. What irony that the very color draped upon Jesus to disgrace him, became his color of kingly victory. Older icons show Jesus dressed in blue with red underneath; here blue represents humanity and red shows divinity.

Over the shoulders of the kingly Jesus in many icons, you may see a pallium. Most often this is a wide, white band of wool, ornamented with crosses. It was draped around the neck, shoulders and breast to represent the shepherd with the sheep upon his shoulders. Jesus in all his kingly glory does not forget us, his flock.

In the right hand of Christ the King images, as is true in Western images of kings, you may see a scepter. It signifies the power of a king or high priest. Or Jesus may hold an orb with a cross to symbolize both the universe and the importance of the Christian religion in the world. These symbols are usually shown  in his right hand since from biblical times, the right hand symbolizes  wisdom (Eccl 10:2), honor (Ps 45:9) and power and strength (Mt 22:44).

Perhaps the most noticeable element on any image of Christ the King is his crown. Modern icons show the ornate, miter of the Eastern church, which is based on the crown worn by the emperors of the late Byzantine Empire. It is round in shape, fashioned of gold and precious jewels and may have red fabric incorporated into it.

Although most icons of Christ the King show him from the waist up, look for a full-size image. Peeking from below the ornate, kingly robes you will usually see a pair of bare feet. This is a subtle reminder that in all things, we are to put on humility.

Zahorik is pastoral associate at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Oshkosh.

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