Sunday, November 24, 2013

Christ the King: An 8th Century Fresco


The floor of the Basilica of Sts. Cosmas and Damian was raised 7 meters in the early 17th century in order to keep water from seeping from the surrounding soil and through the walls of the nave. This particular church renovation project was a resounding success. The ancient mosaics of the apse, while perhaps more imposing now due to their new closeness to the viewer, seem entirely congruent and proportional with the interior as a whole. One wonders at the geometric calculations that would have made this work so beautifully.

One of the paintings that was moved upstairs to the height of the "new normal" church and placed above a side altar is this beautiful 8th-century fresco of the crucified King. At first sight, it looks almost modern, like a present-day painting from Mexico or the southwestern United States. But it is ancient.

Christ is the Crucified, and a King. He is robed in majesty; He is fastened to the Cross. He wears the royal purple robes with which His scorners intended to mock Him, but He, Alpha and Omega, the first and last Word, the Primogenitor of those who are being saved, confers His own divine dignity onto the very idea of kingship. He wears the glory that inspired the good thief to plead for his salvation, with the confidence of the One whose Sonship makes that salvation possible.

In our era, when people tend to separate the glorious from the salvific, it helps to look back and see a time in the Church when robes of glory and the will to save were not thought to be at odds. In fact, it is His very royalty that opens the doors of heaven for us, and gives us hope that our pleas will be heard by One who is not only ineffably kind, but infinitely strong.