Symbolism in Christ the King images

By Linda Zahorik | November 20, 2014

Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the King in 1925. Pius hoped the institution of the feast would have various effects: first that it would clearly define a separation between church and secular government; that civil leaders would hold respect for Jesus Christ; and that it would strengthen Catholics to allow Jesus to reign in our hearts, minds, wills and bodies.

If you seek out images of Jesus as Christ the King, you will begin to see similar objects in most renderings. Obviously each of those symbols has been added to the image for a specific purpose. While it is impossible to uncover all the symbolic nuisances in a picture or icon of Christ the King, let us ponder the images at their most basic level.

In the image, Jesus sits upon a throne. He is wearing a cape of red, the color we associate with blood, a source of life. Red also symbolizes sacrifice. Christ in sacrificing his blood for us cleanses and redeems us from the penalty of sin.

Upon Jesus’ head you will see a magnificent crown. The crown is a symbol of honor, power and eternal life. A few illustrations portray the crown with spiky points, the crown most familiar to us in the West. However, more often you will see a bulb-shaped crown, banded in two layers. This crown is based on the imperial crown of the late Eastern Roman Empire and is used most often in icons of Christ the King.

Jesus is shown holding a scepter and/or orb. The scepter symbolizes authority and the orb represents the areas over which this authority is exercised. In the case of Jesus, it symbolizes authority over the entire world. The scepter and orb together in a picture point to the perfect balance between the masculine and feminine. In art, masculine is usually symbolized by a straight line (a scepter, a spear, a sword, etc.) and feminine by a curved line (a sphere, a bowl, a cave, etc.).

In some renderings you will see Jesus’ right hand in a gesture with his first two fingers and thumb extended and his third and fourth finger are closed. We can see this as a sign of blessing since, according to Christian doctrine, the right hand is the one with which one blesses. This gesture can also remind us of heaven since the upraised fingers point our attention in an upward direction.

Other artists use the gesture of Jesus’ hand and fingers to create the Greek symbols that spell out his name with the four-letter Christogram “IC XC.” The touching finger and thumb of Jesus not only spell out “C,”but attest to the joining of divine and human natures found in the body of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps you will find most poignant those pictures of Christ the King where you see bare feet extending out from all the ornate and kingly robes. In many religions, bare feet are seen as a sign of humility. We can also understand the bare feet to mean that even in being the king of heaven and earth, Jesus Christ is first and foremost a model of servanthood.

This Sunday at Mass, reflect also on the sacrifice required to follow a king who leads in bare feet. Choosing to follow Christ the King is choosing to make one’s life into a sign of the cross and preach Christ daily by living in his mind, heart and will.

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

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