Sunday, May 18, 2008

Father, Son, Spirit

Today we celebrate the mystery of the Holy Trinity, three persons in one God. This mystery, revealed and not intuited, is unique to Christianity. And we know it was something that has been part of the faith from the beginning. The second reading from today’s Mass comes from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians and contains the well-known Trinitarian blessing: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. (2 Corinthians 13:13)
There it is, approximately 20-25 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, a full statement of the faith of the church. Indeed, the entire letter is filled with Trinitarian references. Where could this belief in a single Godhead of three distinct persons have come from? It is foreign to both Judaism and Islam. It can only be from the revelation given to the Apostles at Pentecost as they reflected on their lived experience of Jesus and His teaching.

Throughout subsequent Christian life the church has reflected on this revelation in theology, literature and art. In literature we have Dante’s beautiful ending to The Divine Comedy where he describes three circles of light of different colors, sharing only one dimension. And yet, within that image there also appears a human form, for He took on our form as we were made in His image.

The visual arts also have reflected on the mystery in different ways and have presented us with three main, differing traditions. One very old tradition, mainly active in the Eastern Churches, and deriving from the description of the three mysterious visitors whom Abraham receives and entertains (Genesis 18), represents the Trinity as three more of less identical men. A famous example is the picture by the 15th-century Russian iconographer, Andrei Rublev (Moscow, Tretyakov Gallery). This Icon of the Trinity uses subtle differences of color and position to distinguish between the Divine Persons.

Although this image appears occasionally in the West, the primary Western representations of the Trinity fall into two distinct types. The main constant between them is the imaging of the Holy Spirit as a dove, based on the Gospels’ description of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, John 1:32). One type, predominant throughout the Renaissance, shows variations of an image known as the Throne of Grace. In this image God the Father is shown either seated or standing. He holds in His arms either the dead body of Christ or Christ still hanging on the Cross, much in the manner of the better known image of the Pietà. The dove of the Holy Spirit hovers nearby. The image evokes the act of Redemption. It also conveys the message that the God who gave His Son shares our human grief and will be compassionate in His dealings with us. There are many famous portrayals of this image by some of the greatest of Western artists, both Italian and Northern, of the period before about 1600. The painters include: Botticelli, Andrea del Castagno, Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Dürer, El Greco, Masaccio, the Master of Flemalle, Hugo van der Goes and José Ribera. I’ve included the version by Castagno, showing the “Apparition of the Trinity to St. Jerome and two accompanying female saints(Florence, SS. Annunziata, ca. 1453). The two women are probably St. Jerome’s disciples St. Paula and her daughter, St. Eustochium, who, in the late 4th century, followed him to Bethlehem where they established monasteries for men and women and gave their time to studying the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Castagno image is an interesting example of an artist trying to assimilate the recently invented science or perspective. This is seen in the extreme foreshortening of the image of the Trinity, which ends in fire to cover the lower part of Christ’s body in order to cover the too drastically foreshortened legs.

The other Western image, which eventually replaced the Throne of Grace, is a more straightforward, even prosaic image of the Three Persons. God the Father is shown as an older, bearded man, Jesus is shown as a young man bearing the wounds of His Passion, and the Holy Spirit appears as a dove. Sometimes they are shown seated side by side, sometimes God the Father is placed above Jesus, with the Holy Spirit placed below. I’ve included Rubens 1604 side-by-side image of the “Gonzaga family worshipping the Trinity(Ducal Palace, Mantua), showing the ducal family in prayer in the lower half of the picture while angels unwrap a vision of the Trinity, as if it were a tapestry, in the space above their heads. Clearly, in the 150 years that separate Castagno and Rubens the problems of foreshortening had been overcome!