Last week my wife and I returned from a 15-day trip to Turkey. The highlight of the trip for me was our visit to the old cathedral church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
When I was in college 40 years ago, I became intensely interested in the history of the Byzantine empire. Since then I have done extensive reading in Byzantine history and Eastern Orthodox theology. And it has long been my life dream to stand under the dome of Justinian’s great church.
I have fulfilled that life dream. And what a thrill it was!
While we were in the church, an absolute must for me was visiting the deësis mosaic on the south gallery of the church. The mosaic is fragmentary today. Large portions of it are missing, but the portrait of Jesus is nearly completely in tact.
Over the course of Christian history, thousands upon thousands of images of Jesus have been created. They include sculptures, manuscript miniatures, frescoes, mosaics, panel paintings, enamels, woodcuts, and even dolls. With this super-abundance of images of Jesus, can you point to one as your favorite above all others?
I can, and it is this deësis portrait of Jesus on the wall of Hagia Sophia. I have adored this image of Christ ever since I first encountered it in an art history book years ago. It stunned me when I first encountered it.
Why is it my favorite? Because it captures for me the New Testament picture of Christ and the orthodox Christian doctrine of Christ better than any other image of Christ created by other artists.
In the mosaic Jesus sits upon a jeweled throne in majesty as the Lord of the cosmos. (The jeweled throne is now missing, but we know it was once there.) The virgin Mary and John the Baptist stand on each side of him with hands raised in prayer. They are praying for sinful, erring humanity.
Christ is dressed in a golden tunic with a brilliant blue mantle hanging over his shoulder. Behind him the wall glows with gold mosaic tiles.
This is an image of the resurrected and ascended Jesus who sits on the right hand of the Father. It conveys the majesty that the elder John was trying to describe in his vision of heaven in the Book of Revelation.
This is a Jesus whose divine nature is as visible as it can be. With the apostle Thomas, we are meant to cry out, “My Lord and my God.”
Yet, there is a strangely gentle and compassionate look to Jesus’ eyes and face. He may be Lord of the cosmos, but he is not the stern judge quick to damn. Instead I look at this Jesus in majesty and immediately recognize him as the same Jesus who walked the dusty roads of Galilee in sandals, preaching and teaching, healing, feeding the hungry, and forgiving sinners.
Here is a Lord of the cosmos who has not lost his compassionate humanity in his exaltation to majesty. Here is one deeply human, whom, with Mary of Bethany, we want to fall on our knees and cover his feet with our tears.
The artist who created this portrait has managed to capture both the divinity and humanity of Jesus in the one person. That is the essence of the picture of Jesus we get in the New Testament, as I read it. It is also the orthodox doctrine of Christ, as defined by the Chalcedonian definition.
It is hard to hold on to this delicate unity in our preaching, teaching, and Christian piety. We are all too inclined to over-emphasize either Jesus’ divinity or his humanity. Most Christian art also falls into one of these over-simplifications.
But one artist, in 12th century Constantinople, was able to convey that unity in his portrait of Jesus. And I for one stand in awe of his achievement.