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Awesome or Awful? A Reflection on the Mosaic of Christ in Majesty at the Basilica in Washington

June 30, 2015

looking upI’ve been spending quite a bit of time at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington recently, due to ordinations and other special occasions. As I walk up the main aisle I never fail to be moved by the scene above the apse of Christ in majesty. (See one of my photos to the right.)

I have discovered that very few people are neutral on this image of Christ seated in Judgment. People either love it or hate it. I recall a discussion here on the blog over four years ago that elicited lots of different opinions.

Those who hate it say that He looks angry, and many also don’t care for the Roman toga, and bare shoulder and right chest. To others, who prefer more “inclusive” depictions of Christ, His blond hair, blue eyes, and exceptionally white skin make him seem too European.

Those who love the image say they like the fact that Christ is presented as strong and formidable. For them, this image is a relief from many other modern portraits of Christ, which present Him as a thin, willow-wisp of a man with an often weak look upon His face. But the Christ in majesty of the Basilica is someone who is to be taken seriously and to whom we must render an account.

My own thoughts have shifted over the years. As a younger man, I disliked this work. But over the years and after thoroughly studying the Scriptures, I have come to greatly admire this image of Christ. I often go to the Basilica, and when I do I always stand in the nave and look to Him for strength. I am often filled with joy and holy reverence as I gaze upon His towering strength and sublime majesty. He is a strong and manly Christ who speaks to me. He does not look angry to me. Rather, He seems to be saying, “Have confidence. I have overcome the world.” The inscription above the image also inspires me:

Christ reigns, Christ Rules. Eternal Victor, Eternal King
His kingdom is an everlasting Kingdom that shall not be taken away

You surely have your own thoughts about this image and I encourage you to share them in the comments section. But first, I would like to examine some of the details of this image. Some of them may be obvious, but others you may not have noticed.

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 that Christ looks angry. On 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.

closeup for blogBut let’s look a little closer at Christ’s face (at left). Look closely at his eyes. Notice that the one on the right (His left eye) is more rounded and serene than the one on the left (His right eye), which is narrower and more piercing. Notice also that the eyebrow on the right is more arched and peaceful, while the one on the left is angled downward in a severe look. Take your hand and cover the side on the left and see that He appears more serene. Then cover the side on the right and notice that He appears more 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 for those who have shown mercy and severe justice for 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 that 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 that 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, the 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 would be hard to depict artistically; it might look as if Jesus had red eye!

Add the blond hair and blues eyes to His white complexion and we clearly have a European Christ. There is only a vague account of the complexion of Christ in 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 a color blind society, and it would be a joy to get there. But we cannot simply ignore these as reasons why some do not like this image of Christ. The Bible’s silence on the skin color of Christ demonstrates that our issues today with skin color were not 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 passage from Isaiah that 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 poetically says, “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, four sides, the stature and hands of a man, and 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!”

I expect some of you will have things to add, possibly corrections or different interpretations. Remember it’s art, not science. One interpretation doesn’t necessarily preclude another. Especially valued are additions to the list that would include insights from Scripture, Tradition, and/or techniques of iconography. When we’re done, I’ll update the post to include things you might be able to add or clarify.

By the way, I am grateful to Jem Sullivan, who a few years back authored a book called The Beauty of Faith. Using Christian Art to Spread the Good News. In it, she encourages what I have tried to do here. Namely, that we should carefully study and pray Christian Art as a kind of lectio divina before the painted or sculpted word.

Here is a video of some unique pictures I took at the Basilica five years ago. They are taken from the Clerestory, a place few visitors go.

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Comments (44)

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  1. Will Cubbedge says:

    Re: The face and ethnicity, his beardlessness may indicate that the artist was inspired by ancient catacombs depictions of Christ as a clean-shaven, light skinned Euorpean/Roman rather than a Judean.

    • Richard Connell says:

      The thing is, though, He does have a beard in the painting! It is obvious in the close up picture, though much less noticeable in the further away picture.

      • Will Cubbedge says:

        More stubble than beard, I always thought. At least compared to contemporary images of the fully-bearded Christ.

  2. Patty says:

    I love the mosaic of Christ in all His strength and might. The video is great and the choir singing is fabulous. I would like to obtain a CD of that choir…maybe several..for our choir master, like during a penance service…ppl would love this. patty

  3. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    Looks like it was done by a Buddhist artist.

  4. Cara says:

    The entire church is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I must go visit! His hands look strangely real.

  5. Taylor says:

    The first time I visited the Basilica and saw the image, I was in RCIA. Frankly, it made me feel quite uncomfortable. But, I see and agree with your points. Very good and helpful analysis.

  6. Pat says:

    What an excellent article. I must admit, Christ’s expression is disturbing to me. And it SHOULD be disturbing when we contemplate the final judgement.

    Some thoughts came into my mind as I looked at this depiction of Christ. When I see or read about a facial expression I don’t understand, I mimic it in my own face and then have a better reading on the emotion being represented. When I did that for this image, it reminded me so much of my “end of semester” face. I teach freshman and sophomore college students. I LOVE teaching. I teach with love, laughter, concern, seriousness, understanding– you name it, I use and feel everything I can to help them. But ultimately, at the end of the semester, a grade is needed in the gradebook. Even though I continually remind my students not to confuse my love of them with being a pushover, at the end of the semester there are always students who are astonished that the “F” they earned is being recorded in the grade book.

    Christ is the ultimate “no pushover.” He will judge us fairly and justly. We will get the eternity we deserve. And if that thought doesn’t leave us feeling uncomfortable, then we don’t know Christ.

  7. Martin says:

    I always felt that the more I studied the facial features the more it resembled a lamb, as in the Lamb of God. The face seems kind of elongated and with the hair, as you note, and the long nose it clearly has features that draw me towards that conclusion.

  8. K L says:

    What happened to the month of september-2012? Nothing appears there in the archive, and I know something existed because I had a blog bookmarked from that month before the redesign.

  9. Andromeda Mary Regina says:

    Not in love with the image, but we can all be grateful that it sits within an Architecture that doesn’t look like I’m entering into the YMCA.

  10. Jerry says:

    I have loved this image from the moment I saw it. In fact, my wife purchased a post card from the gift shop, had the image enlarged, and framed it as a birthday gift for me. He overlooks me now at every meal!

  11. sursum cor says:

    You ask – ‘awesome or awful’ ??

    In His great majesty:

    BOTH.

  12. The Lion says:

    I remember 3 yrs. ago I came back to The Church, being gone for 35 yrs. I was not Fully Back, just tooling w/ the idea, since a friend had asked me to accompany her. My first impression was THIS Mosaic of Christ in Majesty. I was so profoundly impressed with HIS INDEED MAJESTY of this Mosaic, I could not sleep for days. Finally I went back to Basilica on my own, went to confession, it was lengthy, and have been on a crash course of all I had missed over the years I was gone. I have never been more satisfied in my life since, and it has not all been easy. But COMPREHENDING just WHO this CHRIST IS, via THIS MOSAIC, has led me on a journey that sees me through daily life, and joyfully too. It’ never too late for us to claim our inheritance and I encourage all to go, see. Sit and ponder. Prove to yourself what this life is about and why. And you just may find yourself in full awe and inspiration of THE CHRIST – IN MAJESTY!

  13. Richard Connell says:

    I think the painting would be insufferable if He didn’t have the marks of crucifixion in His hands. The face is much less severe looking close up than further away.

    • Richard Connell says:

      Maybe the painting would be sufferable without the marks of crucifixion. Rather, the marks of crucifixion balance the facial expression.

  14. Magdalene says:

    What I like is seeing the stature of Our Lady that is in ‘front’ of the mosaic of Our Lord. Let us go to Jesus through Mary!!! She is the Mother of Mercy.

  15. C Beltz says:

    I absolutely love it. I graduated High School at the Basilica and quite frankly never noticed it. Then I visited it a couple years back. I took the tour (which I highly recommend) and noted how he watches over you wherever you are. It is both frightening and comforting.

    And isn’t that how it should be? Our Lord is not a hug monkey, he is our master. He does not exist to stroke our egos. He is our Savior, and boy do we need saving.

  16. Pat says:

    I understand why some see an angry Face on Christ in this Mosaic. As a child it use to scare me. I’ve also noticed growing up that that Picture of the Sacred Heart in my home looked angry. My Spiritual Director always told me that no Christ is not appearing angry in either the Mosaic at the Shrine or the in any image of Him in pictures. It is all human nature the priest told me, if we have a guilty conscious or have the slightest thing we have sinned in the Eyes of the Lord He will appear angry or as if He is angry at us. But on the contrary He is Love and Mercy and as an adult I see that now. Yes, Christ is the Judge of all the World and soon that Judgment Day will be upon us; maybe not in my life time (as my dear Grandmother use to say) but maybe in the lives of those coming up behind us. The only question we have to think about when pondering this Mosaic or any of the many images of Our Lord in pictures such as the Sacred Heart is How do we want Him to gaze on us on Judgment Day and what must we do to have the Merciful Gaze and not the angry gaze on that day. I enjoy Christian music and though it is not Catholic there is a song by the group Casting Crowns that talks about the Wedding Day of the Bridegroom to His Church and the part of the chorus speaks to me and I hope it speaks to some of you. I will not quote but paraphrase it. The chorus says that ‘When all you long to see is written on His Face, Love has come and finally set you free’. Isn’t that what we all want to see on His Face; Love the only Love He can give. Just some humble thoughts, I enjoyed your article and take on the mosaic. Thank you.

  17. Nate says:

    I like the portrayal of Christ’s strength but I think the image would have been better with his arms held straight out at a lower level like is found in some Pantocrator iconography. What is it the raised hands are supposed to symbolize – other than touchdown? 🙂

  18. Barbara says:

    I scrolled back up to the picture and, indeed, Christ’s face does resemble a lamb, and His hair, the wool of a lamb.
    Thank you for the comment.

    Monsignor, I really appreciate your exploration of the meaning of the icon. I only ever perceived it as an angry Christ. I see it differently, now.

  19. Bee bee says:

    I’ve never been to the Basilica and have not seen the mosaic in person, and I’m sure photos don’t do it justice, but I do not like it; mostly because, as Nate says above, my first impression is “Touchdown Jesus.” The gesture of the arms is not natural, and so don’t convey authority or judgement to me. I also don’t like the Greek-like physique with the muscled arm, shoulder, chest and neck. Too much like the “after results of “Insanity Body Workout” for my taste! Not that I would expect a wimpy Jesus, with flaccid muscles, but He is depicted too thin and “wiry.”

    I do like the expression on the face, both from a distance and close up. From a distance His expression seems stern – as if He is a personage to be taken seriously; a no-nonsense judge. Close up, His face seems wide and truthful, open and honest. His eyes look directly into yours, as if there is no way to deceive these eyes that see into your soul, and look at you in an honest but scrutinizing way. His lips are closed; it’s you who are speaking and revealing yourself. He is listening, watching, and judging.

    From the photo, it appears His left hand is facing palm away from Him, as if He is making a gesture to stop someone or send them away (the goats on His left?) and His right hand is slightly cupped, as if to beckon (the sheep on His right?) but since I haven’t seen it in real life, this may just be an appearance from the photo. I also notice He appears to be sitting on a rainbow, which may hearken to God’s covenant and faithfulness.

    Perhaps if I saw it in real life and saw it often, I would come to like it. But as a first impression, I don’t like it too much.

    • Msgr. Charles Pope says:

      I think in “real life” the touchdown effect is less obvious. It is more the Son of man separating sheep from goats.

  20. Bender says:

    There may indeed be a number of messages conveyed in the various elements of the mosaic. But on the whole it simply is not very aesthetic. Not has it become so over the years. Good sacred art should not need this much effort to sell it.

    Then there is the matter of subject matter. It may very well have been timely when installed, to have a Christ the King theme, but the Basilica is named for the Immaculate Conception. Surely if they nevertheless wanted a Jesus theme, they could have found something with a some connection to Mary.

    • Msgr. Charles Pope says:

      I think your last point is especially pertinent. On the pother hand, are the ancient basilicas with Mary in the Apse instead of the pantocrator?

  21. musicus says:

    Please address at some point why the Basilica is treated today as an architectural mistake. The whole meaning of the architectural footprint is that of the Rosary with the high altar as the center. This is rendered pointless by the use of the forward altar. What can we do to enlighten the management? I believe that blessings will abound when the high altar is used again.

    • Msgr. Charles Pope says:

      I would like to use the high altar more and did celebrate Mass there once. However there is one HUGE problem with the high altar, it cannot be seen by 35% of the congregation. Huge design flaw.

  22. Gregory says:

    Jesus-Captain America

    • Msgr. Charles Pope says:

      I’ve heard this before. And he was sometimes called “thor” due to the red flames coming out the halo. This interpretation seems common to those who read a lot of comic books growing up and it is a significant criticism of the image.