Exploring the Sacred
Beholding the Sacred
Prince of Peace Abbey
Prince of Peace Abbey, Oceanside, CA
Iconography in Christian art is a means of making present significant religious events or personage through visual symbolism. The icon of Christ the Prince of Peace, the Universal Ruler, written by Father Gabriel Chávez de la Mora, O.S.B. of Tepeyac Abbey in Mexico City, is the most striking element of the Abbey Church at Prince of Peace. Father Gabriel is also the designing architect of the abbey church, as well as the designer of much of the sacred art seen in the church. Father Gabriel is also one of the architects of the 1976 Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
The icon is acrylic on wood measuring eight feet by eight feet. The church as a whole is dominated by measurements divisible by four.
The icon is dominated by symbolism and theology found in the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation. A familiarity with Johannine literature is necessary for full appreciation of the icon.
The icon is centered on a gold-leafed triptych. Beneath the icon is a granite block engraved with two titles: Pantokrator (Παντοκράτωρ), a Greek word meaning the “All-Ruller” or “Universal King” and Princeps Pacis, Latin for “Prince of Peace.” A Pantokrator icon, in the tradition of icons, is one presenting Christ in glory, seated on a throne as “Lord of the Universe.” This icon presents Christ as the Prince of Peace as well; he holds the open Gospel book showing us the word PAX—Peace.
“Peace” was the very first word spoken by the Risen Lord to the Apostles (cf John 20:19). This peace came after the Lord’s passion. For this reason, the PAX in the icon is in the Lenten color of violet, the color of penance and repentance. Our own path to peace will follow the Lenten pattern of self-denial. The Rule of Saint Benedict indicates, “The monk’s life should always have the aspect of Lenten observance” (chapter 49). The fruit of such a life and of faith is peace.
Touches of purple, the color of royalty, in the coloration of the word PAX point back to Christ as King and Prince of Peace. The Passiontide hymn in honor of the Lord’s cross, Vexilla Regis—The Banners (actually, military banners) of the King—speaks of “I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already. There is a Baptism I must still endure (cf Luke 12:49-50).” It was the baptism of his passion that he was referring to: a baptism of fire and blood, a baptism through which we have received peace.
Father Gabriel departs from traditional iconography of the glorified Christ by representing the wounds of Christ’s passion. The vision of St. John in the Book of Revelation describes Christ as the Lamb “standing, yet slain” (cf. Revelation 5:6). Father Gabriel alludes to this by representing the wounds, now glorified, as points of light, eight rays—eight, for the Resurrection is the “New Day” and “eighth day.” Early Christians writers referred to Christ as the “Lord of the Eighth Day.”
The circle appearing around the figure of Christ in the icon symbolizes eternity and the entirety of creation. Within it, we see symbolic representations of the sun, the moon, the winds, and the stars. We also see the cross, representing salvation, symbolically extending to the ends of the universe. The arms of the cross are inscribed with IC and XC—a Christogram of the first and last letters of each word in the name Jesus (IHCOYC) Christ (XPICTOC) in Greek. Below the feet of Christ, the cross has broken the chains of sin and death, the Greek word NIKA, “He Conquers,” proclaims his victory.
Symbols of the four evangelists are in each corner: the ox for St. Luke, the lion for St. Mark, the eagle for St. John, and the man for St. Matthew. Christ is seated on a throne emblazoned with the Greek Alpha and Omega—the First and the Last. Under his feet is a footstool of azure, glassy seas as described in the Book of Revelation. He is vested in white, as St. John envisioned him in the Book of Revelation, as well as in the Transfiguration in which Christ’s divinity visibly shone through his humanity. The letters O W N (ώ Ό Ν - omega, omicron, nu) appearing in the halo are abbreviations words meaning “He who is”—a reference to the divinity of Christ. The Old Testament reveals “He who is” to be the name God revealed to Moses (Ex. 3:14). The Revelation of St. John uses the phrase: “Who is (ὁ ὢ ν), Who was, and Who is coming” to refer to Jesus Christ; these revelations of Jesus Christ’s nature and the Holy Trinity are preserved in Christ’s Halo.
Circular arcs of red and gold are traced in a rectangular form around the figure of Christ. Red is often used in iconography to depict the humanity of Jesus and gold represents his divinity. Christ's head and left foot extend beyond this linear boundary— Christ is God and man and beyond all creation and exists beyond all limitations of time and space. "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (cf. John 1:1)
Father Gabriel used the facial proportions for the icon from the Shroud of Turin. The figure of Christ is about one and a half times the size of the average man. The painting of the Christ himself is opaque; all else in the icon is transparent or merely delineated. This effect gives the form of Christ an imposing visual and symbolic prominence—all else is passing, as it were.