The words written within an icon give voice to the saint through what they hold in their hands. Each saint holds a scroll depicting something they have written—coming from either the Old Testament, an Epistle, or one of the saint’s writings. But, in an icon of Christ the Almighty (in Greek, Παντοκράτωρ, or Pantocrator), we find an exception. In traditional Orthodox iconography, Christ holds a Gospel book containing words spoken by, or even about, Him.
There are two different texts that are most often used in an Orthodox icon of Christ the Almighty. The first is the Great Commandment, recorded in all four Gospels. In the Gospel of Luke the Apostle, the account goes like this,
“And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’ And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.’” (Luke 10:25-28, KJV)
In an icon, this text could read, “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and your neighbour as yourself”. It’s a beautiful text, and a profound statement about how we need to live. It is especially appropriate for an icon of Christ found in the iconostasis of a church. This is because in coming into the church we need to hear such instruction and the healing it promises.
Yet, that text is not the preferred choice for an icon of Christ the Almighty destined for the home. This is something I learned personally many years ago, when I presented such an icon of Christ to a dying woman. After setting the icon beside her, I sat with her and her husband in their home. It was clear that her earthly life was at an end and that she would never get out of that bed again. It was an honour to bring her an icon of Christ and I trusted that He would be especially present to her because of it. As I sat with her I realized that the words of encouragement presented by the icon were also ones of action. Within the church, they were part of the spiritual health offered through the liturgy. But, in a situation like the one happening in their home, that response was not possible.
Ever since then, the studio has always used an alternative text for an icon of Christ the Almighty destined for a home. It is also traditional, and comes from the Gospel of John. The text reads,
“Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know. Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way? Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:1-6, KJV)
These words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” are a profound statement. In them we can meet every experience that happens in our home. Jesus Christ is our all in all—he is the source of our very deification. As St. Athanasius of Alexandria (†373) said, “For He was made man that we might be made God”.
Whether living or dying, these words from the Gospel assure us of who He is and of our eternal hope. When young, we can follow Him as the way with that perfect faith that is the property of a child. During the course of our lives, the truth that He is lights our way. And, when older, we can rest in peace trusting that such life promises that we will never really die. And, in all this, faith allows us to respond with, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” (Luke 23:42, KJV).
Although less common, there are also other texts sometimes used in an icon of Christ the Almighty. When painting a triptych for the Mission to Seafarers in Hamilton many years ago, the Gospel contained the words, “Lord, bid me come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:28). In these words was a beauty that could especially minister to the sailors when they came to pray.
As part of the Icons at Home series, the words that appear with the icon of Christ the Almighty are, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”. This icon is part of a traditional diptych, along with Mary the Guide, found in many homes around the world. May both icons bless many homes, and the families and friends of their community, with the presence of Jesus Christ.
The original icon was creating in 2019 for the Icons at Home project by a private commission.