Icons from the Tower of Pope John XXIII

The California Chapter

Christ Pantocrator

Artist: Unknown, Russian
Date: Second half of the XIX century
Dimensions: 30.5 x 25.5 cm
Materials: Oil on panel, silver and gilded metal, polychrome enamels
Inventory Number: 44880

This precious Russian icon of Christ Pantocrator is made up of two elements: a wood panel painted in oil and a golden silver metallic covering, called a riza, richly decorated with polychrome enamels whose refined ornamentation reveals the professional level of the silversmith who created it. The riza outlines parts of the underlying image, leaving only the face and hands of Christ uncovered.

The hieratic image of the Savior, frontal and half-figured, has a divided beard and long hair parted in two locks. It is in the iconographic type called Pantocrator, a Greek word meaning: “He who sustains all things in himself” indicating that Christ, the Incarnate Word, is the omnipotent Sovereign and Ruler of the universe. The origin of this iconography is linked to the vision of the prophet Ezekiel (Ez 1: 26-28), but above all the artist intends to portray the dogma of Christ’s equality with the Father, proclaimed in the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 and represented in early Christian art.

The Christ Pantocrator, in fact, is one of the most ancient and widespread iconographic subjects of Eastern Christianity; in Russian tradition it is also often called Spasitel or Spas, which mean Savior.

In the icon presented here, the face of Christ, according to tradition, is surrounded by a large halo made of polychrome enamel in which are inserted the three Cyrillic letters ѾОН, the Slavic transcription of the Greek word O ΩΝ. This is the “heavenly” name of Christ, which alludes to the words with which God revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai “Εγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν”, which means “I am who I am” (Ex 3:14).

Dressed in a tunic and cloak decorated with a dense vegetal motif, Christ is depicted with the right hand in the gesture of the Greek blessing, that is, with the crossed fingers that form the anagram of the name of Jesus (IC) Christ (XC). The left hand shows the open Gospel in which we read a written inscription in ecclesiastical Slavic and made of blue enamel:

ВЫ̀ Д́А И ВЫ́/

This is a passage from the Gospel of John (13.34-35): “I give you a new commandment: that you love one another; as I have loved you, so you also love one another…. “.

At the top of the two angular panels are the six Slavic letters ІИС ХРС, which are a traditional abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ: ІИСУС ХРИСТОС (Iisus Xristos). The rectangular panel at Christ’s shoulder reads the inscription Г (ОСПО) ДЬ ВСЕ, which continues on the other side with the inscription ДЕРЖИТЕЛЬ, meaning “Lord Pant / ocrator”.

The technique of execution, the style and the palaeographic examination of the inscriptions makes it possible to attribute the icon to a Russian painter who worked in the “academic style.” This identity developed in Russia in the post-Petrine era in the second half of the eighteenth century, and particullary in the nineteenth century. Its birth and diffusion are due, on the one hand, to the influence of Western art and, on the other, to the activity of the painters trained at the Academy of Fine Arts, who realized the icons in the academic style using oil instead of the traditional tempera technique.

The restoration of the icon will allow the study and conservation of the painting. Furthermore, it will be possible to discover the silversmith’s technique of embossment, the quality of metal and the city of manufacture found marked on the metallic coating, thus permitting the knowledge of the year and location of where the work was made. 


Artist: Unknown, Russian
Date: Late XIX century, early XX century
Dimensions: 31 x 26.5 cm
Materials: Oil on panel, silver and gold with polychrome enamels
Inventory Number: 44892

The icon presented here depicts a particular kind image of Christ called the Mandylion or the “Image of Edessa”, the latter name in relation to the origin of the lost original. According to tradition, this image was not made by human hand, but miraculously engraved by Christ on a linen handkerchief. Eusebius of Caesarea described the event in his Ecclesiastical History (fourth century) and refers to two ancient documents written in Syriac that he discovered in the archives of Edessa. He narrates that Abgar, the king of Edessa, stricken by the plague, sent a servant named Ananias to Christ, asking to heal him. The king also entrusted to the same servant the task of painting the effigy of Christ, but the attempts of Ananias to depict his face were in vain. At that point, Jesus bathed his face and wiped it with a veil, leaving the strokes of his image imprinted upon it. In Russia this typology is called “face of the savior not painted by human hand,” while in the Byzantine East it is called with the Greek name Mandylion, which comes from the Arabic Mandil, which literally means handkerchief. The news of the miraculous event written by Eusebius was also reported by Efrem the Syrian and other historians. The most detailed account dates back to Constantino Porfinogenito (tenth century) and resulted in an intervention of Pope Gelasius II († 1119), who proclaimed by degree that such narration was apocryphal (unproven), excluding it from the canonical texts, but without prejudice for the cult of the icon.

According to the widespread tradition in the Christian Orient, the Mandylion was initially preserved in Edessa of Mesopotamia (now Urfa, Turkey). In the tenth century the icon was transferred to Constantinople, where in 1204 its traces were lost during the riots that followed the conquest of the city during the Fourth Crusade. In Russia, the narrative and the first depictions of the “face of the savior not painted by human hand” came from Byzantium at the time of the conversion of Kievan Rus (i.e. ancient Russia) to Christianity in the late tenth century.

The oldest existing Russian icon of the “face of the savior not painted by human hand” is the painted panel conserved today in Moscow, in the Tretiakov Gallery, datable to the second half of the twelfth century. This iconographic type was common in Russia  until the beginning of the twentieth century, albeit undergoing some changes over the decades. While in the oldest works only the face of Jesus was depicted, from the sixteenth century onwards the composition was enriched by the insertion of two curtain-holding angels showing the shroud with the face of the Savior.

This icon is composed of two elements: an oil painting on wood panel and a protective covering consisting of a metal plate with polychrome enamels, called a riza. The gilded silver metallic coating almost completely covers the panel, leaving only the head of Christ uncovered in the background of the shroud. Jesus is depicted frontally, according to the Byzantine dictates, without a crown of thorns, since the miraculous healing of King Abgar had taken place before the Passion of Christ. He has a mustache and a full two-part beard. His face is framed by long hair, ending in curls divided into two strands. He has a hieratic and penetrating gaze, which expresses both strength and sweetness. The halo has the shape of a ray surrounded by flowers in polychrome enamel. Within the halo are inserted the three letters ѾОΝ, transcription into Slavic of the “Heavenly” name of Christ, “I am who I am” (Es 3.14).

Thanks to the examination of the technique of execution and the stylistic and paleographic analysis of the work, it is possible to attribute the icon to a Russian painter operating at the end of the nineteenth century who executed it in “academic style” with oil paints, instead of the traditional tempera; this was common in the nineteenth century. 

Virgin Hodegetria of Smolensk

Artist: Unknown, Russian
Date: Late XVIII century – early XIX century
Dimensions: 42 x 34 cm
Materials: Tempera on wood panel, silver and gold, enamels, lapis lazuli
Inventory Number: 44900

This Vatican icon depicts a well-known iconographic Marian type called the Smolensk Mother of God, which is composed of two elements: a tempera painted wood panel and a covering consisting of a gilded metal plate decorated with enamels and precious stones in which appears the same iconographic subject. It is a “replica” of the well-known Byzantine iconographic model of the Virgin Hodegetria. The prototype, which was kept in the Hodegon Monastery in Constantinople, represented the Theotokos (Mother of God) holding the Christ Child and gesturing to Him with her right hand, presenting him to the faithful as their means of salvation. The word hodegetria in Greek means “she who points the way”. Both figures in this icon were represented frontally, the Christ Child, severe and solemn, raises his right hand in blessing and carries a scroll of law in his left hand. Thanks to the numerous copies and replicas derived from the original Constantinopolitan panel, the icon of Our Lady of the Way became well known throughout the Christian East. 

Russian icons of this type were already known as early as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, although it seems that none of the Russian replicas that have survived to this day can be dated to before the fourteenth century.

With regard to the painted panel, the ancient city of Smolensk once possessed one of the “reproductions” of the Byzantine painting of the Virgin Hodegetria; over time the “replica” became well known and venerated by the faithful, thanks to the widespread fame of the healing power of the work. For this reason, the Smolensk panel was transferred to Moscow at the beginning of the fifteenth century and placed in the Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin. After nearly half a century and because there were several copies left in Moscow, the painting was returned to Smolensk in 1456. From the traditional type of Virgin Hodegetria icons, several less-faithful versions of the prototype have been made; the Vatican’s Our Lady of the Way is based on one of those copies from Smolensk and thus is a reproduction that is very close to the original Byzantine Virgin Hodegetria.

The riza or protective metallic covering of the icon reveals only the figures of the Virgin and Child. The Virgin is depicted as a half-figure, wearing a blue tunic bordered by gilt edges. She wears a Mitella (headdress) which is covered by a dark red maphorion (cloak) with wide folds. There are three almost invisible stars traditionally present on the forehead and shoulders of the mantle of Mary: traditional symbols of her perpetual virginity. Christ is depicted barefoot, wearing a blue chitone (long woolen tunic) and a bright red himation (mantle) with gold highlights. Haloes in the shape of a rays are embossed on the metal plating, the crowns are decorated with precious stones and the upper area is inscribed with the typical Greek initials for the Mother of God: Μ (ητη) Ρ Θ (εο) Υ (“Mother of God”). Jesus’s abbreviated Greek name: Ι (ηсου) с Χ (Ριсτò)C is written above his halo.

The stylistic analysis and the technique of execution of this work permits the attribution of the icon to a Russian painter operating in the eighteenth century.

Christ Emmanuele

Artist: Unknown, Russian
Date: Last quarter of the XIX century
Dimensions: 27 x 22 cm
Materials: Oil on panel, silver metal, stones and pearls Inventory Number: 44895

This valuable icon, executed in the technique of oil painting on panel, depicts the Christ Child. Only his face is revealed, the surrounding area completely covered by a richly decorated silver riza and with an application of fabric embroidered with small pearls on the robe and turquoise stones that form a necklace. On the silver plates flanking the portrait of Christ, one reads the titulus of the depicted theme, engraved in ecclesiastical Slavic:


/Lord Savior Emmanuel/

The Christ Child is represented frontally and in half-bust, with blue eyes, brown hair and uncovered neck. His broad forehead is an indication of divine wisdom, and despite his childlike appearance, his gaze is majestic. Three eight-pointed star-shaped plates in the halo, are embossed with the three Cyrillic letters ѾОН, a transcription in Slavic of the “heavenly” name of Christ,
“I am who I am” (Es 3.14).

In Byzantine and Russian art, the typology of the Christ Child is depicted in a series of icons traditionally called “Christ Emmanuel.” This iconographic subject was probably the Church’s response to the Nestorian heresy, which denied the Savior’s divinity before his baptism in the Jordan River. For this reason, the Christ Child is already represented with a halo, a symbol of his divine essence, and often hold a parchment, alluding to the Incarnate Word and his teaching.

The iconography of Christ Emmanuel is above all derived from a selection of Old Testament passages drawn from the writings of the prophet Isaiah (8:8-10; 9:6-7); in the Christian tradition these prophecies refer to the figure of Christ. In fact, the name “Emmanuel” in Hebrew means “God is with us”, as is found in Isaiah (Is 7:14).

The narratives of the Evangelists Luke and John have also inspired the formation of this iconographical subject in reference to the episode from the life of Christ who, at just twelve years of age, taught the doctors of the Law in the Temple of Jerusalem (Lk 2:41-50; Jn 7:14-16). Consequently, the image of Christ Emmanuel is generally considered to be that of twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple.