Icon of Christ Pantocrator

In a post on my own blog earlier this year I said that autocratic power disconnects rulers from people – from the persons for whom they are accountable.

I have yet to see the face of Vladimir Putin in the press, following the recent gunning down of a commercial airliner, in which he does not look disconnected. When pressed for an explanation, or better still for a willingness to take responsibility for the tragedy and allow himself to be held accountable, he seems remote, absent, afraid.

Perhaps he is afraid of what his power has finally done, with or without his consent. Politically, he is caught in an impossible situation. Either he accepts responsibility for the shooting down of the plane, or he admits that the separatists whom he supports have taken power into their own hands and have now separated from him. Perhaps he senses, too late, that they are pursuing a trajectory of their own.

It seems that the power which Putin has relied on, helped by a certain kind of personal charisma, is not up to the job of controlling what he has unleashed in the Ukraine. The genie is out of the bottle. The charisma was helpful at first in enhancing a certain Napoleonic public persona, someone who, one suspects, was trying to create a legacy for himself by re-building the lost empire of the former Soviet Union. But things have not gone according to plan, with tragic consequences for innocent third parties, the 298 people who died in that airline crash. Days after the event, evil continues as incompetence, duplicity and chaos, made all the worse in the ratcheting up of the blame game. Passing the blame around wastes valuable time and resources and allows the evil to spread unchecked, attracting others to itself and absorbing them in the power games of international politics.

The Genesis story of the Garden of Eden, read allegorically, speaks into this situation. God’s question to the man and the woman, 'What have you done?' has profound implications for those who hold power and who make choices which have tragic consequences, even if they did not intend such consequences. It has something to say about power when the person wielding it is either ignorant of its potential, or, having some sense of that potential, uses it to ideological ends which have more to do with self aggrandisement than they do with serving and protecting people.

In the story of the Garden of Eden, we see two human beings who share power which has been entrusted to them by the ultimate giver of power, allowing for a degree of imbalance in the initial sharing, but that is another story. What matters in the context of what is happening in Ukraine at present is that the man and the woman are answerable to the giver of power, to its source, for what they do with it and for the long term consequences of their actions. The ultimate source of power is the one ‘in whom all things are made’.

Iconographers of the Orthodox tradition represent him as the ‘Pantocrator’, the one in whom all life is sourced and who embraces the whole of humanity in his own humanity. In contemplating the icon of the Pantocrator we are always brought back to the same story about power and accountability. It is a painting which disturbs. There is a darkness and mystery about it. You have to really look to see the face. It is hard to ‘read’ its expression. It is meant to be that way, because it is the face in the icon which is in fact reading you, the viewer. This also makes it hard to hold the gaze of that face for any length of time, although it is not a face which accuses. It simply knows.

The figure usually holds an open book in one hand and points back to himself with the other. It is sometimes easier to look at the book and the hand than it is to hold the gaze of the face, but one always ends by looking at the face, out of need and out of a kind of compelling love. Something greater than the human intellect or sense of self is at work in this unspoken visual dialogue. We love but at the same time know ourselves to be accountable in a way which can only be described as awe.

Vladimir Putin is often seen taking part in Orthodox liturgy and venerating these beautiful icons but does he look at that iconic face and allow it to question him?