Sunday, November 16, 2014

King of the World

Really...he's the king of the world. We often look for the crown in conjunction with the image of Christ  to represent the last Sunday of the liturgical year, when we acknowledge the Reign of Christ. But there is another symbol that speaks to the day that Christ reigns over all the earth, when all things are under his feet and he is seated on his throne (Ephesians 1:22, Matthew 25:31). That symbol is the orb and cross.

Found in images of Jesus and in the jewel vaults of earthly rulers around the earth, the orb and cross symbolize the triumph of the cross around and across the earth. While some orbs are a solid circle, others have a band around the orb's "equator" and a band stretching from one side of the orb to the other, from equator to equator over the north pole. Those bands may be perceived as the structure needed to hold the cross surmounted on the orb, but the design actually is a remnant of an early map of the world.
The T-O map (orbis terrarum, created from the letter T inside the letter O) is a graphic depiction of the world as described by Isidore of Seville in the 7th century. Three continents (Asia, Africa and Europe) were known, and three bodies of water were also illustrated: the Mediterranean Sea, the Nile River and the ocean that surrounded the land masses. The three known continents are, on the map, ascribed to the three sons of Noah: Shem, Ham and Japheth. Each of these men is considered the historic ancestor of the peoples of the continents. The city of Jerusalem would be at almost the center of the circular map - where the Mediterranean dead ends into Asia.

Hans Memling. Christ with Singing and Music-Making Angels. Oil on panel. Koninklijk Museum Voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerpen.

Turn the T-O map upside down (so that the downstroke of the T is above the "equator" of the orb, and you can plainly see the map in the orb. Top the banded orb with a cross, and there is the royal regalia that has come to symbolize earthly authority. Above, Hans Memling's Jesus holds a crystal orb surmounted with the cross. Surrounded by music-making angels, he blesses those on whom he is looking. The background of the painting is gold, used in the tradition of icons to symbolize eternity. Below, in a show of temporal power, England's Elizabeth I holds the Sovereign's Orb in her left hand, as she would do after her coronation. This is not the same orb used in the coronation of Elizabeth II. That orb is a hollow gold sphere made in 1661. The symbolism is the same, however.
Unknown artist. Queen Elizabeth I. c. 1600. Oil on panel. National Portrait Gallery, London. 

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture for Reign of Christ A (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24), click here.
For additional thoughts on the Reign of Christ, click herehere, or here.

What does the cross-topped crown at left have to say on Christ the King Sunday?See Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

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