Or, A Primer on Depicting the Trinity
In the Western Tradition of the Church, yesterday was Trinity Sunday. This always comes the Sunday after Pentecost, and it celebrates the reality that God has been revealed to us as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Eastern Tradition recognizes that this complete revelation of God occurs on Pentecost, when all three persons of the Trinity have been revealed to us, and so Pentecost doubles as Trinity Sunday in the East. Churches in the West, focusing more on the event of the descending of the Spirit on Pentecost, began the local custom of observing on the following Sunday the reality of the Trinity, the relationships between the persons of the Trinity, or as Full Homely Divinity puts it, “rather a constellation of relationships, beginning with the communion of three Persons within the Godhead, and expanding to the relationship between the Triune God and all of Creation. In particular, Trinity Sunday celebrates the encounter of the eternal God with humankind both in and beyond time.” Eventually this local custom became universal in the West.
In the early centuries of the Church it was the East, not the West, that struggled the most with establishing speech both about the Trinity and the Incarnation. In the third century, Tertullian, the first major Christian writer to use Latin, developed the language of three persons (personas) in one Trinity (trinitas), and also the language of the two natures (substantiae) in the one person of Christ. This early foundation in the West for articulating the Orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation helped it to affirm and defend Orthodoxy in the Greek speaking East when it was embroiled in heresies over the next several centuries (e.g. Pope Leo’s influence on the Council of Chalcedon). But at some later point in the history of the West, especially in the post-schism renaissance and baroque eras, depictions of the Trinity in art became widespread that risked undermining the very Orthodox language the West used of the Trinity. These depictions represent the Father as an older, august man in regal clothing, the Son in his incarnate form and usually with the symbol of the cross with him, and the Holy Spirit as a dove.
The trouble is that the Scriptures never describe the Father or the Spirit at all. The Father is said to sit on a throne, but isn’t described beyond that. The Spirit, as Spirit, is implied to be invisible, except when described as appearing “in the form of” a dove at Christ’s baptism and as tongues of fire at Pentecost, but not as a dove or fire in actuality or essence. The only person of the Trinity who has been truly seen is the Son, in his incarnation. In the face of the man Jesus of Nazareth the true face of God is seen. Once, his disciple Philip asked him to show the Father to them; Jesus rebuked him saying, “Philip, I have been with you all this time, and still you do not know Me? Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”
But isn’t the Father shown as the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7? Yes, the description of “one like a Son of Man” coming on the clouds and being presented to “the Ancient of Days” in Daniel 7 is pretty universally interpreted by the Church fathers as a description of Jesus ascending to the Father (as in, Acts 1:9). And in that chapter in Daniel, the Ancient of Days is described as having vesture as white as snow and hair like pure wool. The white hair implies what the title makes clear: he is ancient. But the description of his throne being ablaze with fire communicates power, so his ancientness doesn’t mean frailty or decrepitness. It’s a powerfully evocative image, even if it’s not heavy on details.
But to be very precise, this is not an image of the Father exactly, it’s an image of “the Ancient of Days.” The title “Ancient of Days” and the visual description Daniel relays is just one aspect of the divinity of God: ancientness or agelessness. But this is an attribute not specific to the Father alone; it’s also shared equally with the Son and the Spirit. All three persons are co-eternal, without a beginning. Standing as a formal title for this particular attribute, the title “Ancient of Days” could be applied to any of the persons of the Godhead. In fact, there’s no shortage of examples in the writings of the fathers that do in fact apply this title to Christ.
“The Ancient of Days became an infant” (St. Athanasius, Homily on the Birth of Christ).
“But what can I say? For the wonder astounds me. The Ancient of Days Who sits upon a high and exalted throne is laid in a manger” (St. John Chrysostom, Homily on the Savior’s Birth).
“The just Symeon received into his aged arms the Ancient of Days under the form of infancy, and, therefore, blessed God, saying, ‘Now lettest Thy servant depart in peace…’” (St. Methodios of Olympus).
As you can see, the contrast between the agelessness of the Ancient of Days with the infancy of the Incarnate Lord makes a strong rhetorical and theological impact. So while the imagery of the Ancient of Days is used to represent the Father in the Daniel passage, the same imagery is applied to Christ just as easily because both Father and Son share the divine attribute of ageless eternity. In this sense, we could say that, just like the Holy Spirit was seen “in the form of” a dove at Jesus’ baptism, in Daniel’s vision the Father is seen “in the form of” the Ancient of Days.
Neither “a dove” nor “the Ancient of Days” is the true form of the Spirit or the Father. Both are invisible, unrevealed in essence, and therefore undepictable. It’s still appropriate to depict the Father as the Ancient of Days in the context of Daniel’s vision and the Spirit as a dove in the context of Jesus’ baptism. But once depicted in those forms within those contexts, it’s very easy to use those forms as a general way of depicting those divine persons all the time. This, I think, is unhelpful. It encourages us to make too strong a link in our minds between the persons and those context-specific images. In the case of the Holy Spirit and the dove image, we’re protected somewhat because of the dissonance between the words “spirit” and “dove.” They don’t automatically equate in our imaginations, and so it’s easier to remember that a dove only represents the Spirit in a metaphorical way. But when shown the image of an older man with white hair to represent God the Father, the image sticks in our brains in a much more literal way.
God the Son, however, in distinction from the Father and the Spirit, became incarnate. The immortal Son and Word entered time and put on flesh. He now has a human face that can be drawn. If there had been cameras in the first century someone could have taken a photograph of him. The traditional way of depicting Jesus Christ is a literal communication of the way he looked. This type of depiction is not the Son “in the form of” a man like the Spirit “in the form of” a dove. In fact, there was a heresy that tried to say just that very thing which the Orthodox Church had to reject. It would imply that the Son wasn’t truly man, but only appeared to be. But the Orthodox Faith is that the Son truly did become fully human while remaining fully God. So when we depict Jesus, it’s both his full humanity and divinity that we see.
This creates a dissonance in the above depictions of the Trinity, because there are different types of representations being used side by side. There is the literal depiction of the incarnate Son, but the figurative depictions of the Father and the Spirit. Someone who didn’t know the theology of the Trinity could be forgiven for not understanding the distinction between the types of representation –literal and figurative– in those images. I think as teaching tools, as didactic images, these are disastrous. Again, there’s nothing wrong in principle with the images of the Ancient of Days and a dove, but wrenched from their biblical contexts and thrown together with an image of the actually incarnate Jesus, they just create confusion of thought.
There is, however, one iconographic tradition of drawing the Trinity that, when contemplated, leads to clarity of thought instead of confusion. This is the tradition of depicting the hospitality of Abraham to the three angelic visitors in Genesis 18. At the time of this event, the Son was not yet incarnate. The three angels are mysteriously called The LORD (or Yahweh, the divine name) in the passage, and Abraham addresses them in the singular, “My Lord.” Christian reflection has understood this to be a figurative, not a literal, representation of the Holy Trinity. The three angels are not an essential revelation of the form of the Trinity, just as the Ancient of days isn’t the essential form of the Father and a dove isn’t the essential form of the Spirit. But in the figures of these angels and the language used of them in the scripture, we have a representation of the Trinity. The height of depicting “The Hospitality of Abraham” in icon form was achieved by Andrei Rublev in the fifteenth century.
In Rublev’s icon, the figures of Abraham and his wife Sarah are omitted or “out of frame” entirely, and all the focus is on the three figures at the table. The figures form a circle in their arrangement, indicating completeness, harmony, eternity. There is a cup in the midst of them indicating their communion together and their sharing of everything. On all of the figures can be seen the color blue, representing divinity.
The angel on the left, representing the Father, has his divinity clothed in a garment that seems to shimmer, representing heavenly glory. He blesses the cup while looking to the angel in the middle, as if to pass the cup to him. The central angel, representing the Son, inclines in acceptance to the Father is if to receive the cup (Luke 22:42). He is clothed in blue for divinity and red for humanity (though in most icons of Christ alone these same colors are used representing the inverse — red for divinity and blue for humanity). The angel to the right, representing the Holy Spirit, wears the divine blue, but also green, representing life and growth. Over the shoulder of the Father is Abraham’s “tent,” depicted here though as a great house — the House of the Father into which Christ brings us. Over the shoulder of the Son is the Oak of Mamre, foreshadowing the tree of the cross. Behind the Spirit is a mountain, representing the spiritual ascent all believers must make with the aid of the Holy Spirit. The Son and the Spirit both incline toward the Father in submission, as the Son is begotten of the Father and the Spirit proceeds from the Father. But the Father is not exalted above them in any way — rather they all sit on equally high thrones, representing their equality.
To date, this is the most effective way yet that the mystery of the Trinity has been depicted. The figurativeness and symbolism actually elucidate the mystery, whereas the confused mixture of literal and figurative forms in the previously examined images obscures the reality of the Trinity. God’s Old Testament prohibition of making depictions of him is for good reason — and it actually still stands. We can depict God incarnate, however, because he has shown himself. He is Jesus of Nazareth, and he has a human face. And if we, like Philip, desire to see the Father, we ought to recall the words of Jesus: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”