Studying the “Christ in Majesty” Mosaic at the National Basilica
1. Flames of Fire in the Halo – The New Testament Scriptures indicate that Christ will judge the world by fire (cf 1 Cor 3:13; Heb 10:27; 2 Peter 3:7-12). Christ is clearly seated in judgment and he will judge the world by fire and also purify those who are to be saved through fire (cf 1 Cor 3:13-15; Malachi 3:3). Further, Both Daniel and the Book of Revelation speak of fire and flashes of lightning around the Throne of God. So it is that these flames indicate the Holiness of Christ and the fact that he will both judge and purify through fire. This fire need not be understood as a physical fire but at least as a spiritual fire.
2, His Angry (?) Look – Many who observe the image say Christ looks angry. At one level this seem likely since on the Day of Judgment there is not going to be any fooling around. The Scriptures speak of this day as a Day of Wrath (Mat 3:7; John 3:36; Rom 1:18; Rom 2:8; Rom 5:9; Col 3:6; 1 Thess 1:10; Rev 6:16; Rev 11:18, inter al) at least it will be so for those who have rejected God’s offer and have not been saved from the wrath.
But let’s look a little closer at Christ’s face (at Left). Look closely at his eyes. Notice that the one on the right (from our perspective) is more rounded and serene than the one on the left that is narrower and piercing. Notice also that the right eyebrow is more arched and peaceful and the one on the left angled and downward in a severe look. Now take your hand and cover the left side of the face and see that he is more serene and then cover the right side of the face and see that he is severe. This is very common in Eastern Iconography which likes to present both the Justice and Mercy of God on the face of Christ. It is subtle but it is meant to be otherwise we’d have a weird looking face. On the Day of Judgement there will be mercy seen by those who have shown mercy and severe justice to those who have been severe (Mat 5:7; Mat 7:2; James 2:13) for Justice and mercy are alike with him (cf Sirach 5:7). Looking into his eyes I am reminded of the stunning text from Hebrews which says of Christ: No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account. (Heb 4:13)
3. What of his other facial features? – The artist seems to have captured the fact that the Book of Revelation described the glorified Christ as having hair like wool but notice what it says of the color: His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow (Rev 1:14). Perhaps the artist thought snow white hair would be too shocking but we definitely have blond hair here. The eyes look to be blue or possibly green. Here too our artist has not conformed as well to the description in the Book of Revelation which says, his eyes were like blazing fire (Rev 1:14). This too would be hard to depict artistically. It might look like Jesus had red eye! But perhaps then brown eyes might have been favored over blue since, at least in our age, some inclusivity is desirable in art. Add the blond hair and blues eyes to his white complexion and we clearly have a European Christ. There is only a vague and account of the complexion of Christ in the Scripture: His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance….His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace (Rev 1:15-16) These texts speak more of brightness than color. I know that this notion of inclusivity drives some people crazy who prefer color blind society and it would be a joy to get there. But we cannot simply ignore these as factors why some do not like this image of Christ. The Bible’s silence on the skin color of Christ demonstrates that our issues with skin color were not issues pertinent to Scriptural times.
4. What of his red garment?– In Revelation 19 Christ appears riding a strong white horse and John speaks of the robe he wore: He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God (Rev 19:13).
5. What of his right arm being bared?: Here too I am mindful of a scripture which says, The LORD will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the saving power of our God (Is 52:10) It is a symbol of his strength and his power to save and put down his enemies.
6. What of the fact that He is seated? As we have noted this is a depiction of the Last Judgment. And of that judgment scripture says, When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. (Matt 25:41-43) I am mindful of the old Latin Hymn Dies Irae which says poetically: When the Judge his seat attaineth, and each hidden deed arraigneth, nothing unavenged remaineth.
7. What of the angels at his feet? In the Book of Ezekiel (1:4-21 and 10:1-22), there is a vision of the four living creatures or Cherubim around a throne, each having four faces, four wings, the stature of a man, four sides, the hands of a man, the soles of a calf. Further, we have already seen that when the Lord returns he will be accompanied by his angels. Finally Psalm 99 says, The LORD reigns, let the nations tremble; he sits enthroned between the cherubim, let the earth shake. Great is the LORD in Zion; he is exalted over all the nations (Ps 99:1-2) Somebody say Amen!
(Taken from the blog of
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