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

looking upI have spent quite a bit of time at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington, 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 Judgment 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, currently the archdiocese’s Secretary for Education, 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.