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Basic Christian Iconography: the “Majestas (Maiestas) Domini”

July 28th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

Majestas Domini is Latin for “the majesty (glory) of the Lord”.[1]

This iconic image is arguably older than the cross –especially the crucifix– in Christian art, having its origins in the 4th century, whereas the cross did not appear until the 5th century and the crucifix, even later.

The Majestas Domini is not often employed now-a-days perhaps due to the ascendency of a theology of “Jesus, our brother” or even “Jesus, our friend” and the simultaneous suppressing of a Christology that emphasizes the divinity of Christ along with his humanity, as the Majestas Domini does.

In the iconic image, Christ sits regally upon a throne (signifying his authority to make laws) surrounded by a special halo called a mandorla, an almond shaped aureola[2] that encircles the entire body, signifying holy or divine status. He raises his right hand in the ancient gesture of an authoritative orator, teacher or law giver. He is not giving a blessing as some believe.[3] His left hand holds a book that is sometimes open with an inscription that varies depending on the contexts in which the image is deployed.

In some renderings Christ holds a closed book which is interpreted as a book of the Gospels, the “new” law.

The image is very much in the spirit of the opening chapter of the Gospel of Saint John; “In the beginning was the Word (Logos) and the Word was with God and the Word was God…  “ establishing Christ as divine, consubstantial, co-eternal, and co-creator with the Father.

The image of divine creator, ruler of the universe and authoritative teacher and law giver that we see in the Majestas Domini does not fit the softer, more ambiguous and non-judgmental “Jesus our friend/brother” theology of the modern liturgist and that may account for why the icon is seldom used today but it may also explain why we do not see, anymore, the various themes or dogmatic images it was paired with –the Last Judgement or Second Coming. In fact we don’t see anything concerning judgement or law in contemporary liturgical art.

Following are just a few of the various appearances of the Majestas Domini icon in Christian art history.

(Click on pictures to see larger images)

"Codex Bruchsal", Romanesque illuminated manuscript Gospel Book, c.1220. Here we can see the basic "Majestas Domini" icon in one of its most common presentations; with symbols of the four evangelists depicted in the corner medallions (upper left: winged man for St. Matthew; upper right: an eagle for St. John; lower left: a winged ox symbolizing St. Mark; lower right: the winged bull symbol for St. Luke. One interesting aspect is almost always include in the Majestas Domini: the Lord's orator hand and one or both feet overlap or even extend beyond the boundary of the mandorla/full body halo.

“Codex Bruchsal”, Romanesque illuminated manuscript Gospel Book, c.1220.

Above, we can see the basic Majestas Domini icon in one of its more common appearances, with symbols of the four evangelists depicted in corner illustrations (upper left: winged man for St. Matthew; upper right: an eagle for St. John; lower left: a winged lion symbolizing St. Mark; lower right: the winged bull symbol for St. Luke). The arrangement of the fingers on the Lord’s extended hand is the standard ancient Roman arrangement utilized by teachers and orators when teaching and speaking.

Central tympanum of the Royal portal, Chatres Cathedral, 1145-50. The "Majestas Domini" in the typmanum of the Main potral of the Chartres Cathedral is usually called a "Last judgement" as the symbols of the four evangelists are often interpreted as the four beasts of the apocalyse although the title would be more obvious if the Lord was seated on a rainbow as mentioed in Old Testament phrofit's vision.

Tympanum of the Royal Portal of the Cathedral of Chartres, France, 1145-150.  The harmonious style and coordination of shapes within the design offers us a simple but very powerful image. The four symbolic figures next to the image of Our Lord, in this instance, represent the four beasts of the Second Coming (tetramorphs).

During the Middle Ages, the Majestas Domini icon was often paired with the theme of the Second Coming over the central entrance to a church. Doing so suggested to the faithful entering the church the glory and power of the Lord and the promise of future glory for the faithful.

Below is a depiction of the Second Coming as the Last Judgement with several scenes from the story paired with the icon of the Majestas Domini. The faithful were reminded, as they entered through the portal of the church under this image, to live according to the divine law if they wanted to enter through the gates of heaven.

"Last Judgement" in the typanum over the central portal of Autun Cathedral, ca. 1130.Lazare, Tympanon Autun (Saone-et-Loire), Kathedrale Saint Lazare. Westportal, Tympanon: - Christus als Weltenrichter in der Mandorla und Juengstes Gericht. - Skulptur von Gislebert von Autun, um 1140. Foto, undat. E: Autun, Cath. Saint Lazare, tympanum Autun (Saone-et-Loire), Cathedrale Saint Lazare. West tympanum: - Christ as Judge in the mandorla with the Last Judgement. - Sculpture by Gislebert von Autun, c. 1140. Photo, undated.

The Last Judgement in the tympanum over the central portal of Autun Cathedral, ca. 1130. (Click on the image in order to read the labels.) The right hand and left hands of the Lord are empty but appear to be presenting to us the two groups of people: the condemned on the left and the saved, on the right.

During the Middle Ages, disputes, both secular and religious, were decided in the portals of churches under the depiction of the Last Judgement.

The next image (below) is of  the earliest known Majestas Domini image in a church setting. The mosaic icon is in a 5th century small apse in the chapel of Hosios David (Blessed David) attached to a monastery in Thessaloniki, Greece. A young Christ appears in front of a radiantly colored aureole, seated on a rainbow. Four abbreviated creatures –the beasts of the Second Coming– flank the central figure of Christ and are partially overlapped by the transparent aureole. Below the figure of Christ, the four rivers of paradise flow from a hill. Christ holds a scroll that reads “I am the spring of living water”.

"The Vision of Ezekiel", apse mosaic in Blessed David Chapel, Thessalonica, ca. 425-50. The "Majestas Domini" depicted with the Lord seated upon a rainbow is usually associated with "Last Judgement" themes. (Ezekial 1: 1 - 28: "...and from the appearance of His waist and downward I saw, as it were, the appearance of fire with brightness all around. Like the appearance of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the brightness all around it [the mandorla]. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord").  The term "Majestas Domini" comes from Ezekial's last sentence of his description.

“The Vision of Ezekiel”,
apse mosaic in Blessed David Chapel,
Thessalonica, ca. 425-50. This Majestas Domini depicts the Lord seated upon a rainbow surrounded by rainbow colored bursts of light [the mandorla]. It is based on the biblical text of Ezekial 1: 1 – 28: “…and from the appearance of His waist and downward I saw, as it were, the appearance of fire with brightness all around [the mandorla]. Like the appearance of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the brightness all around it  This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord). The term Majestas Domini is an excerpt from Ezekial’s last sentence.

The scene is of the prophet Ezekial’s vision as recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament. The figure seen cringing and turning away in terror on the far left, hiding from the vision, is the Old Testament prophet, himself.  St. John the Evangelist, the writer of the Book of Revelation, is shown seated to the far right in the mosaic. John describes a similar vision to Ezekial’s in the Book of Revelation, but he is calmly writing done what he is seeing. In the Hosios David mosaic we see depicted the two contrasting images favored by the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity. The Old Testament vision of the god-head, Ezekial’s vision, was favored by the Eastern Church. [4] The New Testament vision revealed to St. John was favored by the Western Church.

Below is another composition using the Majestas Domini in depicting the Second Coming. In this tympanum the centrally placed iconic Majestas Domini is surrounded on three sides (left, right and bottom) by the twenty-four elders described in the Book of Revelation.

Tympanum, Second Coming, Moissac Abbey, ca. 1125

Tympanum, Second Coming, Moissac Abbey, ca. 1125

details of Second Coming, Moissac Abbey. The central Majestas Domini image and the left hand Elders.

details of Second Coming, Moissac Abbey. The central Majestas Domini image and the left hand Elders.

Another tympanum from the Middle Ages (below) employs the Majestas Domini in a most interesting composition as it might stand as a visual metaphor for a couple of important religious activities that took place at the time: pilgrimages and crusades.

The Vezelay tympanum is in the narthex of the church, just over the door into the nave.

The tympanum is in the narthex of the church of Saint Mary Magdeleine in Vezelay, France –just over the door into the nave.

The theme of the composition, above, is the Commissioning of the Apostles: “Go out into the whole world and… ” spread the good news. Surrounding the central image of the Lord are compartments –symbolic of foreign lands– occupied by figures representing the different peoples of the world, many of whom were not well known at the time.[5]

Sending the apostles out involved travel, of course, and so did going on pilgrimage and joining a crusade, both of which were happening at the time this tympanum was created. This church was the point of origin or staging for many significant pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and it was also the site of the preaching of the Second Crusade.[6]

Tympanum of the Church of the Abbaye Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Vézelay, "Commissioning of the Apostles", 1130

Tympanum of the Church of the Abbaye Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Vézelay, “Commissioning of the Apostles”, 1130

The Majestas Domini in the (above) tympanum is significantly different than the usual. Here, the symbols of the four evangelists (or the beasts of the Apocalypse) are missing and the Lord is not teaching or holding a book. Rather, both arms are extended with palms of the hands open and rays of light (or power) emanating from the finger tips to the heads of the apostles. There is still a regal pose to the figure of the Lord and there is still a mandorla but we can see that there are significant changes in some of the specifics of the basic iconic image.

The poses of all the figures in the composition of the Commissioning tympanum suggest a kind of jittery and intense movement that conveys excitement and movement (traveling?).

Russian, 1874?

Russian, 1874?

In the particularly beautiful ceiling fresco shown above we notice that the normal flat Byzantine Eastern icon style has given way to the influence of the European  style of “Renaissance” space and form. The symbols of the four evangelists are shown as if in real space, two in front of the throne and two farther back. The mandorla looks almost as if it is a snow globe enclosing the symbols of the evangelists as well as the figure of the Lord. The Lord holds the Book of the Gospels in his raised right hand and an Eastern crozier or staff in his left indicating teaching and governing authority. He wears the vestments of a tsar.

Below is a photo of a late 4th century apse mosaic in a church in Rome. In it we see a Majestas Domini depicted as a rather natural Christ seated upon on gem studded throne under the gem studded cross of Golgotha, erected on orders of Constantine the Great in the 4th century on the actual site of the crucifixion of Christ. The Lord, wearing gold vestments with purple trim (a sign of imperial authority), sits regally and yet comfortably holding an open book in his left hand and teaching with his right. The four evangelists (we can only see two from this angle) are in the sky over Jerusalem. Acting as a virtual mandorla is the profile of the hill of Golgotha just behind and over our Lord. To the Lord’s left and right are his apostles.[7] Standing behind Saint Peter, on our right, and holding a wreath over Peter’s head is a woman who symbolizes the Church of the Jews. On the left is depicted the same idea only it is Saint Paul being crowned by a figure representing the Church of the Gentiles.

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Below are two “modern” uses of the Majestas Domini.

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The large tapestry of Christ (Majestas Domini) in Coventry Cathedral, England, designed by Graham Sutherland. 1962.

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Christ in Glory, “Christ the Light” Cathedral, Oakland , California. 2008. The window depicts a 90 foot image of Christ in majesty taken from the transept of Chartres Cathedral in France (see the second photo at the top of this post). The image is created by natural light passing through aluminum panels that have been pierced with 94,000 holes.

Finally, the Majestas Domini icon is thought to have originated in the 4th century with the so-called Dominus Legem Dat (the Lord Gives the Law to Peter [and Paul]) image.

Dominus legem dat Petro, from the 4th century sarcophagus of Junius Bassus.

Dominus legem dat Petro, from the 4th century sarcophagus of Junius Bassus.

Above, Christ sits or stands with his feet on Caelus, the Roman sky god. This image proclaims that the new law of Christ has defeated the world of the ancient gods and goddesses (represented by Caelus) and all the worldly powers that invoked them. The two apostles (Peter on Christ’s right and Paul on his left) symbolize the proclamation of the new law to the entire world for Peter symbolizes the Jewish wing of the Church and Paul, the Gentile wing. The new law is, therefore, for everyone –Gentile (the non-Jewish world) as well as Jew. Many times in the history of Christian art the Majestas Domini appears as a Dominus Legem Dat.

There are even more compositions we could look at that derive from this basic dogmatic icon but this will serve as a basic introduction to those not familiar with The Majestas Domini.

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[1] The image (icon) is usually referred to as “Christ in Glory”

[2] a full body halo or nimbus

[3] Eastern Roman Catholic and Orthodox priests use it when giving a blessing (which is why some say the Lord is giving a blessing. He isn’t)

[4] The Hosios David type Majestas Domini is assumed to have been a popular image in the churches of Constantinople because they were frequently deployed in the apses of Egypt and Armenia. Some survive in Cappadocia, Turkey. Constantinople, as the Eastern capital would have influenced the decoration of Egyptian and Armenian churches and those in Cappadocia. At that time, the image was known as the theandric or god-man image.

[5] Many of the figures in the boxes are distorted characterizations of reports made by people who had been in those foreign lands or who had heard from people who had been there.

[6] by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, beneath this very tympanum.

[7] Two are missing, cut off from the ends, unfortunately, when the mosaic underwent restoration in the 16th century.

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One Response to “Basic Christian Iconography: the “Majestas (Maiestas) Domini””

  1. avatar II Cor 2.11 says:

    I will never forget walking into the National Basilica in Washington DC at 7 AM on January 22, 2007. There in the main sanctuary, huge and dominating, the Christ in Majesty mosaic. Breathtaking, and perhaps prophetic, needless to say I was there for the Prolife March. I remember wondering if the artist’s inspiration was taken from the book of Revelation.


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