Saturday, February 16, 2008

Can We Depict the Trinity?

Since we are still celebrating the feast of the Meeting of the Lord, this seems a good time to make a point regarding the question of the identity of the Ancient of Days (cf., Daniel 7 and elsewhere), and more generally of the question of whether the Holy Trinity can be depicted.

The Fathers (with the possible exception of St Augustine) make very clear that all divine manifestations in the Old Testament were of the Word of God. St John writes in the prologue of his Gospel: "No man hath seen God at any time" (1:18). We have attempted to make clear that the entire basis of the veneration of icons is Christ's Incarnation; as St John Damascene put it succinctly: "Just as the Word became flesh, so too did the flesh become the Word."

No one has ever seen God the Father, because He has never assumed form, and therefore He can not be depicted in any way. Jesus Christ, the perfect image of the invisible God, has become incarnate, and therefore can be represented. The Holy Spirit has physically manifested Himself twice: as a dove at Christ's Baptism by St John the Forerunner, and as tongues of fire at Pentecost. No other depiction of the Holy Spirit is permissible. Given this, it should be obvious that it is not possible, strictly speaking, to depict the Holy Trinity per se.

There are, however, two icons that are often considered to be of the Holy Trinity. The first, made famous by St Andrei Rublev, depicts Abraham's reception of the Lord and two angels, as related in Genesis 18. While this icon is sometimes called the "Old Testament Trinity," it is more correctly referred to as the "Hospitality of Abraham." Some icons make clear that this is a depiction of Christ and two angels by placing a cruciform halo over the Christ-Angel. We can interpret this icon, following the Fathers' exegesis of Genesis 18, and of the Orthodox dogmatic tradition, as depicting the Trinity typologically, but no more.

A more problematic icon is that called the "New Testament Trinity," which represents an old man labeled as the "God of Sabaoth" (in Russian practice) or as the "Ancient of Days" (in Greek practice); Jesus Christ; and a dove representing the Holy Spirit. That such a depiction is theologically impossible should be clear. In fact the Stoglavy Council of 1551 specifically forbade the paining of such icons. My guess is that this type of icon was originally intended to depict Christ simultaneously as an old man (the Ancient of Days) and as a young man, in order to symbolize Christ's eternity, but in time was interpreted as a depiction of the Trinity itself. It could also be that this icon was an attempt to depict literally (rather than allegorically) the prophet's vision in Daniel 7:13.

It is here that the liturgical service for the feast of the Meeting of the Lord comes into play. As we have noted, despite the fact that icons of the "New Testament Trinity" conflate the Ancient of Days (or the God of Sabaoth) with God the Father, the liturgical texts and the majority of the Fathers make clear that the Ancient of Days is Christ Himself. At Vespers for this feast (specifically at the Lity) we chant the following:
The Ancient of Days, who in times past gave Moses the Law of Sinai, appears this day as a babe. As Maker of the Law He fulfills the Law, and according to the Law He is brought into the temple and given over to the Elder. Simeon the righteous receives Him, and beholding the fulfillment of the divine ordinance now brought to pass, rejoicing he cries aloud: 'Mine eyes have seen the mystery hidden from the ages, made manifest in these latter days, the Light that disperses the dark folly of the Gentiles without faith and the Glory of the newly-chosen Israel. Therefore let Thy servant depart from the bonds of this flesh to the life filled wiht wonder that knows neither age nor end, O Thou who grantest the world great mercy.
Also at the Lity we chant:
The Ancient of Days, a young child in the flesh, was brought to the temple by His Mother the Virgin, fulfilling the ordinance of His own Law. Receiving Him, Simeon said: 'Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, O Lord.
All this should make clear that we can depict Christ as the Ancient of Days (as above), just as we can depict Him in other forms (e.g., Pantokrator, Emmanuel, Good Shepherd, Holy Wisdom, High Priest, etc.), since all of these represent the Son of God Who became incarnate. But one can not depict the Trinity in the same way. We can, of course, venerate the icon of the Hospitality of Abraham as a typological representation of the Trinity, bearing in mind that, following the exegesis of the Fathers, the icon depicts Christ and two angels. The icon of the so-called "New Testament Trinity" is more difficult to justify, as I have suggested, but became so ubiquitous during the eighteenth and nineteenth century that there is no reason to make it into a stumbling block, as some zealots have. An icon can certainly not be "heretical." It would be quite enough if this type of icon were no longer produced, in accordance with the decisions of the Stoglovy Council and with good doctrinal sense.

For more, see Fr Stephen Ritter's "Who is the Ancient of Days?" Several ancient examples of this icon can be seen here. The very best discussion of this question is in Leonid Ouspensky's Theology of the Icon. For a dissenting view, see here.


Fr. John Whiteford said...

Sorry for posting my original comment under the wrong post, but I would be interested in your response.

Anonymous said...

Hi! Where does the icon at the top of this page come from? are there any modern icons of the Ancient of Days?

Christian Siskos said...

I don't know if this website is still updated but i've got some comments on your writing. First off, you never quite answered if the depiction of the Holy Trinity is wrong or right. Second, if it's not "heretical" it certainly is "un-canonical" am i correct in saying this?

Also, I should make a point in saying that any depiction of God the Father is WRONG, because no human eyes, as stated in the bible, and by countless discussions, etc. has ever seen God the Father, in this way depicting Him in an icon is against the first commandment that was given to Moses. The only 2 out of the 3 forms of the trinity that are allowed to be depicted are of course the Logos (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit.

So, with that being said (I understand much of what I said was repeated, excuse me for that) in your view is it wrong or right to depict the trinity?