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Christ as Priest in Byzantine church decoration of the 11th and 12th centuries

Christ as Priest in Byzantine church decoration of the 11th and 12th centuries

By Alexei Lidov

Acts. XVIIIth International Congress of Byzantine Studies. Selected Papers. Moscow, 1991. Vol.III: Art History, Architecture, Music. (Shepherdstown, 1996)

Christ the Priest. Mosaic image on the eastern domed arch of St. Sophia at Kiev – Wikimedia Commons

Abstract: The 11th century was a watershed in the Byzantine church decoration. This era introduced in altar apses, as innovations of principle, such scenes as “The Communion of the Apostles” and “Officiating Bishops”, which determined the purely liturgical nature of mid-Byzantine iconographic programs. The changes were not limited by these two scenes. The image of Christ the Priest, which emerged in mid-11th century murals (the mosaics of St.Sophia of Kiev present the best-known example), deserve examination among the new liturgical themes of the 11th and 12th centuries.

The unusual haircut (with short hair taking the shape of a double crown round the tonsure) is the main characteristic feature of the iconographic type. Such a haircut was the most general token of belonging to one of the priesthood degrees, which corresponded to the idea of Christ as the great patriarch above all the levels in the church hierarchy. We can notice other features of this type: the short beard, pointing to the youth of Christ, the scroll in His hand as symbol of the Logos and token of Master, and, finally, the special cuffs or epimanikia, a characteristic detail of the Byzantine liturgical vestments–another tactful indication of His priestly rank.

Introduction: The latest studies ever more often regard the 11th century as a watershed in Byzantine church decoration. This era introduced in altar apses, as innovations of principle, such scenes as “The Communion of the Apostles” and “Officiating Bishops”, which determined the purely liturgical nature of mid-Byzantine iconographic programs. The changes were not limited by these twoscenes. As shown earlier, the 11th century introduced and spread the image of Christ Emmanuel in the garments of a bishop at the moment of church consecration. As we see it, the image of Christ the Priest, which emerged in mid-11th century murals (the mosaics of St.Sophia of Kiev present the best-known example), deserve examination among the new liturgical themes of the 11th and 12th centuries.

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