Saturday, June 30, 2012

Peter and Paul and Jerusalem

Filippino Lippi, St. Paul Visiting St. Peter in Prison
Italian, 1481-1482
Florence, Church of Santa Maria del Carmine,
Brancacci Chapel, 
June 29th is the combined feast of the two patrons of Christian Rome, Saint Peter and Saint Paul. These two men, the outspoken Galilean fisherman and the Jerusalem-educated sailmaker from Tarsus, the apostle who walked with (and denied and loved) Jesus and the persecutor-turned-apostle, both died in the city that was the capital of the Roman Empire within a short space of each other and the sites of their burials are among the earliest of Christian churches.  Peter is particularly honored today as the bedrock of the Roman diocese and, by extension, of the universal Church. The Gospel for today recounts the scene from the Gospel of Matthew, sometimes called “The Giving of the Keys” that includes the statement: 
“I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my Church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven.
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)
Excerpt from the Gospel for June 29, 2012

However, today I am going to concentrate on the First Reading for the Mass of today. This reading from the Acts of the Apostles recounts the miraculous liberation of St. Peter from imprisonment in Jerusalem by Herod.
"On the very night before Herod was to bring him to trial,
Peter, secured by double chains,
was sleeping between two soldiers,
while outside the door guards kept watch on the prison.
Suddenly the angel of the Lord stood by him
and a light shone in the cell.
He tapped Peter on the side and awakened him, saying,
"Get up quickly."
The chains fell from his wrists.
The angel said to him, "Put on your belt and your sandals."
He did so.
Then he said to him, "Put on your cloak and follow me."
So he followed him out,
not realizing that what was happening through the angel was real;
he thought he was seeing a vision.
They passed the first guard, then the second,
and came to the iron gate leading out to the city,
which opened for them by itself.
They emerged and made their way down an alley,
and suddenly the angel left him.” (Acts 12:6-10)
Excerpt from First Reading for June 29, 2012

The illustrations for this passage from Acts range from barebones representations in the early medieval period to complex works of the late Baroque. At the beginning representations are almost schematic. They feature the bare minimum needed to tell the story: Saint Peter, the angel and a suggestion of prison walls.

Liberation of Saint Peter
From Lectionarium officii s. petri cluniacensis, 
France (Cluny), 11th-12th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 2246, fol. 113v

Initial N, Liberation of Saint Peter
from a Gradual, Sequentiary, Sacramentary
German (Weingarten), 1225-1250
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M.711, fol. 25r

Later on, there is a fairytale quality to the representation: St. Peter and the angel appear much larger than the tiny symbolic prison.

Liberation of Saint Peter
From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins,
France (St. Omer), 14th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 152, fol. 457v

Liberation of Saint Peter, West Facade Tympanum
German (Regensburg), 1411-1421
Regensburg, Cathedral of Saint Peter

Claes Brouwer and the Alexander Master, Liberation of Saint Peter
From a Historiated Bible
Dutch (Utrecht), ca. 1430
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliothek
MS KB 78 D 3811, fol. 213v

Tapestry, Liberation of Saint Peter
Flanders (Tournai), 1460
Part of a set commissioned for the Cathedral of Beauvais
Paris, Cluny Museum

It remained for the Ranaissance to bring the picture into focus, as it were. The prison is now in scale (mostly) with the figures.

Filippino Lippi, Liberation of Saint Peter 
Italian, c. 1481-1482
Florence, Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Brancacci Chapel

But it is Raphael, in his design for the depiction of the scene surrounding one of the doors in the Stanza d’Eliodoro at the Vatican Palace in 1514 that finally “set the scene” firmly in time and space.

Raphael and Assistants, Liberation of Saint Peter
Italian, 1514
Vatican City, Vatican Museums, Stana d'Eliodoro

Raphael tells the story in three sections: a scene of the guards outside the prison on the left, the scene of the sleeping Peter being roused by the angel in the center and the scene of the angel leading Peter out of the prison on the right.

Raphael and Assistants, Liberation of Saint Peter
Left Section

Raphael and Assistants, Liberation of Saint Peter
Central Section

Raphael and Assistants, Liberation of Saint Peter
Right Section

Leading the way to the future is Raphael’s exploration of the effects of light. We see the effect of moonlight as well as the mysterious light that emanates from the angel.

This is quite different from the flat lighting that was seen in earlier images and leads to the development, which gathered strength during the century after Raphael and leads to the Baroque experiments with light and darkness that sprang from the work of Caravaggio and his followers.

We can see this in later representations of the Liberation of Peter by Steenwyck, Carraciolo, and others.

Hendrick van Steenwyck the Younger, Liberation of Saint Peter
Dutch, Oil on copper, 1619
Hampton Court Palace, Royal Collections Trust

Giovanni Batista Carrociolo, Liberation of Saint Peter
Italian, 1615
Naples, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte

Antonio de Pereda, Liberation of Saint Peter
Spanish, ca. 1643
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Mattia Preti, Liberation of St. Peter
Italian, 1650-1660
Vienna, Akademie der bildenden Künste

Bartolome Murillo, Liberation of Saint Peter
Spanish, 1667
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

And, along with the the movement introduced by the play of light, comes movement in the composition.   The angel no longer approaches sedately, instead he bursts into the picture, full of energy, to arouse Peter from sleep, to extract him from his chains and to lead him out. 

Gerrit van Honthorst, Liberation of Saint Peter
Dutch, 1616-1618
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Guercino, Liberation of Saint Peter
Italian, 1620-1623
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Sebastiano Ricci, Liberation of Saint Peter
Italian, 1722
Venice, Church of San Stae

Peter was led out of prison in Jerusalem to spread the Gospel and lead the Church in its formative years.  Eventually, he came to Rome where he was again imprisoned and, finally, executed in the circus of Nero at the base of the Vatican hill, across the Tiber from Imperial Rome.  Afterwards he was buried in the cemetery across the road from his place of death and, in the year 319 Constantine began construction of a large basilican church above his grave.  Today, Pope Benedict XVI, the 265th successor of Peter, and Metropolitan Emmanuel Adamakis, leader of the Greek Orthodox in France, representing Patriarch Batholemew I of Constantinople, the successor of Peter's brother, Andrew, prayed together above Peter's tomb, while the combined choirs of the Sistine Chapel and Westminster Abbey (Anglican) sang the moving anthem "Tu es Petrus" ("You are Peter", quoted from the Gospel reading of the day) by Lorenzo Perosi (1872-1956).  It was quite a moment!

©  M. Duffy, 2012

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Chariots of Fire

Michelangelo, Elijah in the Fiery Chariot
Italian, 1511
Vatican City, Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel Ceiling
No, this article is not about the 1981 film about the 1924 British Olympic team. It’s about the Biblical event from which the film derived its name – the taking up into Heaven of the prophet Elijah, which is the first reading for today’s Masses.1

“As they walked on conversing,
a flaming chariot and flaming horses came between them,
and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.
When Elisha saw it happen he cried out,
"My father! my father! Israel's chariots and drivers!"
But when he could no longer see him,
Elisha gripped his own garment and tore it in two.

Then he picked up Elijah's mantle that had fallen from him,
and went back and stood at the bank of the Jordan.”

(2 Kings 2:11-13) 
Excerpt from the First Reading for June 20, 2012

The dramatic event of the taking up of Elijah in the fiery chariot has a long history in Western art.

While not necessarily the most popular of images associated with Elijah (other scenes from his life, such as the miracle he performed for the starving widow, received more frequent representation) it is, nonetheless, very frequent.
Giotto, Elijah in the Fiery Chariot
Italian, 1304
Padua. Arena/Scrovegni Chapel

Like the translation of the patriarch, Enoch, who “walked with God, and he was no longer here, for God took him” (Genesis 5:21-24), it was seen as one of the prefigurations (or types) of the Ascension of Jesus. In the usual tripartite arrangement of “Before the Law, Under Grace and Under the Law" (for example on the 12th century Klosterneuburg Altarpiece by Nicholas of Verdun or in the later medieval Biblia pauperum (see below) the Taking up of Elijah (Under the Law) is presented with the Translation of Enoch (Before the Law) and the Ascension of Jesus (Under Grace).
Nicholas of Verdun, Elijah in the Fiery Chariot
From the Klosterneuburg Altar
Mosan, 1181
Klosterneuburg Abbey (Austria)

Master of the Hours of Margaret of Cleves
Translation of Enoch, Ascension of Jesus, Elijah in the Fiery Chariot
From Biblia pauperum
Northern Netherlands, ca. 1405
London, British Library
MS King's 5, fol. 26
It was also a relatively common subject in the illustration of glossed vernacular Bibles, such as that by the 13th century canon, Guiard des Moulins, from Aire-sur-la-Lys in Picardy, whose work became one of the most frequently copied lay volumes in the later middle ages.

From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1300
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 155, fol. 87

From Bible historiale of Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), ca. 1415
New York, Morgan Library
MS M 34, fol. 159r
Jean Colombe
From Hours of Anne of France
French (Bourges), ca. 1473
New York, Morgan Library
MS M 677, fol. 311r
It is interesting that here the two prophets wear the habit of the Carmelite order.  The Carmelites claim 
a spiritual ancestry from the Old Testament prophets.

With the advent of the Renaissance the subject became less frequent, replaced by other episodes from the life of Elijah. However, it continued on well into the 20th century, often for the decoration of church ceilings and domes.
Jobst Dorndorf, Elijah in the Fiery Chariot
German, 1544-1546
Pirna, Evangelical parish church of St. Marien
Juan de Valdes Leal, Elijah in the Fiery Chariot
Spanish, ca. 1658
Cordoba, Shod Carmelite monastery
Anonymous, Elijah in the Fiery Chariot
Austrian, 1701-1715
Lambach, Benedictine Abbey

Marc Chagall, Elijah in the Fiery Chariot
Russian, 1970
Nice, Chagall Museum

The image of the chariot ascending to heaven has an even longer history than these medieval images. For, they are based on an earlier prototype, the chariot of the sun god (the Greek Helios or the Roman Apollo). In pagan mythology the sun god drove a fiery chariot with fiery horses through the sky from east to west, accounting for the movement of the sun through the sky.
Red figure kalyx-crater
Greek (Attic), ca.430 BC
London, British Museum
Add caption
Helios, Relief from temple of Athena at Troy
Hellenistic, 300-280 BC
Berlin, Pergamon Museum

Clearly the Christian artists had seen remnants of this imagery in originating their own image for Elijah.

© M. Duffy, 2012
1.It was not the direct Biblical image of the fiery chariot ride of Elijah that inspired the title of the 1981 Olympic film. It was the poem by William Blake, later set to music by Sir Hubert Parry, from which the title came. Blake’s poem, part of the preface to his long poem “Milton a Poem” of 1808-1810, is the actual source. However, the source of Blake’s line “Bring me my chariot of fire” is a reference to the story of Elijah.  Below is a clip of the ending of the film "Chariots of Fire" in which, at the memorial service for Harold Abrahams in St. Paul's Cathedral, the choir sings the hymn "Jerusalem", which is the Parry setting for the Blake poem.  The chariots reference comes from the second verse of the hymn, which says:

"Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!"

(Full text at

© M. Duffy 2012

Friday, June 8, 2012

Is it Art? Reflections on the “Impossible Conversation” at the Met

Elsa Schaparelli, Jacket
French, Synthetic and Leather, 1937
New York, Metropolitan Museum, Costume Institute
After about two months of difficulties with walking and standing I’ve finally returned to some museum going. But, although I had imagined that my first visit would be to the current Met exhibition “Byzantium and Islam”, it was to something entirely different. The Met is also currently staging an exhibition from its Costume Institute that is framed as a conversation of words and works between the legendary designer Elsa Schiaparelli (died 1973) and the contemporary designer Miuccia Prada. Indeed, the conversation of works is dominated by projected snippets of the conversation in words. This is an actual conversation, staged between the real-life Ms. Prada and an actress (Judy Davis) playing the part of Schiaparelli. The video conversation was directed by the theatrical director, Baz Luhrmann. The walls of the galleries become the screens onto which their discussion is projected. The discussions cover topics that include their life stories (Prada’s early fascination with mime, Schiaparelli’s love life) and their work (Schiaparelli’s collaboration with Dali, Prada’s ideas on how clothing affects self-image).

Schaparelli and Prada, Waist Up/Waist Down
In this gallery the jackets are by Schaparelli and the skirts by Prada
New York, Metropolitan Museum
Meanwhile, the actual objects on display are the dresses, skirts, jackets, coats and accessories created by the two women. The “conversation” theme applies here too. The clothing is shown in pairings, centered around several themes: “Waist Up/Waist Down”, “Ugly Chic”, “Hard Chic”, “Naif Chic”, “The Exotic Body”, “The Classical Body”. For example, according to the subtext of the “Waist Up/Waist Down” section which opens the show, Schiaparelli, living in the era of “café society”, where women were seen primarily from the waist up, focused her creativity above the waist. Conversely, Prada reserves her highest creativity for the skirt. The items on display include spectacular Schiaparelli evening jackets (any of which I would be happy to wear today) and almost equally spectacular skirts by Prada (although here, actually wearing a couple of them could present some interesting technical problems).

Schaparelli, Zodiac Jacket
French, Summer 1937
Silk, rhinestones, metal, plastic
New York, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection
at the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute
Prada, Skirt
Italian, Spring/Summer 2005
Photo © Toby McFarlan Pond

One of the most arresting facets of the projected “conversation” that particularly spoke to me was the contrasting opinions of the two women on the issue of whether art is fashion or not. Schiaparelli states quite directly that “Dress designing…is to me not a profession but an art”, Prada doesn’t think that it is anything of the kind. Her comment is that “Dress designing is creative, but it is not an art. Fashion designers make clothes and they have to sell them. We have less creative freedom than artists. But to be honest, whether fashion is art or whether even art is art doesn’t really interest me. Maybe nothing is art. Who cares!”1   And, interestingly, they are both right –- for their own eras and for their own collections.
Schaparelli, Shoe Hat
Photo from L'Officiel, October 1937
Photo © George Saad
Les Editions Jalou, L'Officiel

Schaparelli, Insect Necklace
French, Autumn 1938
Plastic, metal
New York, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection
at the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute

True to her belief in fashion as art, Schiaparelli worked frequently with other artists, particularly with Dali and other Surrealists. Her 1937 and 1938 collections must have been particularly interesting in this regard. In 1937 she collaborated with Dali on producing two of the most whimsical hats that I’ve ever seen: the shoe hat and the lamb chop hat. These hats look like nothing I’ve ever seen before. They look like – well – a shoe and a lamb chop. The lamb chop hat is even adorned with a frilly “panty” just like a real, elegantly served lamb chop. In 1938 a number of her designs, including a very famous necklace, incorporated enameled metal insects. The necklace featured a clear plastic base and, when worn, created the impression of insects crawling over the skin.

Schiaparelli’s creative genius shone most brightly in evening wear, especially in the stunning display of evening capes and jackets on display in the first gallery of the show. The very first item, in fact, is her beautiful evening cape, known as the Apollo of Versailles.

Schaparelli, Apollo of Versailles evening cape
French, Winter 1938-1939
Silk velvet, metallic beads, rhinestones
New York, Metropolitan Museum, Costume Institute
On black velvet, the image of the Apollo from the principal fountain at Versailles is recreated, with his horses, in a tour de force example of bead embroidery, using seed beads, bugle beads and sequins in metallic finishes of silver and gold, along with glittery crystal elements for the eyes of the horse and the interiors of the clouds. The opposing number from Prada featured a skirt of orange silk twill, black felted wool, orange plastic fringe and orange-dyed feathers that reminded me of nothing so much as a punk version of the French maid in Disney’s film of “Beauty and the Beast” who, during the period of enchantment, was portrayed as a feather duster.

Farther into the exhibition are some sensational clothing from both designers reflecting, not surprisingly, their different temperaments and different eras. Schiaparelli’s clothing remained always on the exalted plane of haute couture which, during the era in which she was designing was very haute indeed. Only a few pieces seem to touch the earthy everyday.

Schaparelli and Prada, The Classical Body
In this gallery view the three long dresses are by Schaparelli and the short dresses are by Prada

Prada, Dress
Italian, Spring/Summer 2011
Photo © David Sims
Prada, on the other hand, while definitely able to turn on the glam, also seems more workaday, as well as more problematic. Of course, what is on display is only a fraction of her output, but this predominantly features extreme examples of her aesthetic.

Prada, Lips skirt
Italian, Spring/Summer 2000
Photo © Toby McFarlan Pond

Among these are: her famous lipstick and lips skirts (covered with either lipstick tubes or with big red lips), the latter contrasted with a black suit by Schiaparelli (see above, worn with the shoe hat), with embroidered red lips on the pockets. There is also a Prada pinkish double knit dress covered from neck to hem in synthetic dyed-to-match faux fur and an odd coat with pants, impeccably tailored, but in a fabric so loud and ugly that it puzzles the intellect. However, her work also illustrates the lowered aesthetic level of much of contemporary design. Here I am not speaking about quality or imaginative use of fabric, but merely about the design itself. Contemporary design seems so pared down to essentials that it almost ceases to exist. Often it seems to be merely an upscale version of items available at Old Navy.

Prada, Lipstick skirt
Italian, Spring/Summer 2000
Photo © Toby McFarlan Pond
This observation also seems to reflect their differing statements about fashion as art and Prada’s question about whether art is art. Once such a question would have been both impossible and completely non-sensical. Art seemed obvious, and the definition of art seemed settled. For instance, the Oxford English Dictionary provides this traditional definition of art “The expression or application of creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting, drawing, or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” And the dividing line between “high art” and “low art” seemed assured. As defined by the 19th-century critic, John Ruskin, “High art differs from low art in possessing an excess of beauty in addition to its truth, not in possessing excess of beauty inconsistent with truth.”2  
Or, as John Keats would have it
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’3

Apparently this is no longer the case. If art cannot be defined, then anything can be art.  And this seems to be the key to much of what we have seen from contemporary art in the last few decades.

1. These quotes from Schiaparelli and Prado are taken from the wall cards of the exhibition. The exhibition runs through August 19.
2. John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Vol. III, p. 33.
3. John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, 1819.

© M. Duffy, 2012

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Iconography of the Holy Trinity – Imagining The Unimaginable

Franz Anton Maulbertsch, Trinity
Austrian, 1785-1786
Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts
Christianity has at its core the belief in one God. But, unlike its fellow monotheistic religions of Judaism and Islam, the one God of Christianity is expressed as belief that the Godhead is composed of the three Persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This belief appears very, very early in Christianity, as for example in the Second Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 13:13), generally dated to the year 57. "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you." 1 So, from within about 25 years following the death and resurrection of Jesus, His followers already held this belief. Since the Apostles, Jesus’ companions during His life, were Jewish, as was Paul, and, hence, strong believers in one God, this early appearance of the three Persons implies a very profound shift in their thinking. One can only presume that this shift came from the revelation they experienced from the Resurrection and the Descent of the Holy Spirit.

However, while belief in the Trinity has been with the Church from the beginning, trying to describe and understand this revelation in human language has also been difficult and has occupied some of the best minds of the succeeding centuries. One remembers the cautionary tale of St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the most brilliant minds of the fourth or any other century, and the angelic child as it is told in the Golden Legend, a collection of saints lives, mixed with legends, that was compiled during the middle ages and was highly influential during the later middle ages and Renaissance. As the Golden Legend tells us, Augustine was walking by the sea near his North African home, pondering the mystery of the Trinity and trying to come to an understanding of it.

As the first English edition of the Golden Legend, published by John Caxton in 1483, tells it “he found by the sea-side a little child which had made a little pit in the sand, and in his hand a little spoon. And with the spoon he took out water of the large sea and poured it into the pit. And when St. Augustine beheld him he marvelled, and demanded him what he did. And he answered and said: I will lade out and bring all this water of the sea into this pit. What? said he, it is impossible, how may it be done, since the sea is so great and large, and thy pit and spoon so little? Yes, forsooth, said he, I shall lightlier and sooner draw all the water of the sea and bring it into this pit than thou shalt bring the mystery of the Trinity and his divinity into thy little understanding as to the regard thereof; for the mystery of the Trinity is greater and larger to the comparison of thy wit and brain than is this great sea unto this little pit. And therewith the child vanished away. “2   Augustine understood that he had been rebuked for his presumption.

Benozzo Gozzoli, Parable of the Trinity
Italian, 1464-1465
San Gemignano, Church of Sant'Agostino

In spite of this, Christian thinkers and story tellers have continued to try to comprehend the Trinity and its inner life. For example, we have the happy story of St. Patrick’s use of the shamrock (a sort of small three-leafed clover), with its three leaves on a common stem to explain the Trinity to the pagan Irish. And, from the early fourteenth century, we have the truly beautiful image of three circles of different colored light, occupying a single space, that is the crowning vision of Dante’s Paradiso, the last book of his Divine Comedy.
Within the deep and luminous subsistence
Of the High Light appeared to me three circles,
Of threefold colour and of one dimension,
And by the second seemed the first reflected
As Iris is by Iris, and the third
Seemed fire that equally from both is breathed.
O how all speech is feeble and falls short
Of my conceit, and this to what I saw
Is such, 'tis not enough to call it little. 
(Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, stanzas 115-122)

Artists too have tried to imagine the Trinity in the images they have created. Very often this has taken the visual form of a heavenly scene showing the Trinity with an old man as the Father, a recognizable Jesus and a dove for the Holy Spirit. However this is not always the case. Among the visual traditions (types) to do this are the following:

Three Identical Men

The earliest known representation of the Holy Trinity is the group of three figures at the upper left corner of the so-called "Dogmatic Sarcophgus" in the Vatican Museums.  This marble sarcophagus dates from around 340 AD, just about 30 years from the date of the Edict of Milan, which gave Imperial Roman approval for Christianity to be practiced openly.  It was intended for the burial of a high-ranking couple at the basilica of St. Peter's, then a brand new building, ordered by Constantine on the site of St. Peter's martyrdom and burial.  It was carved just about 20 years after the First Council of Nicea, the first council of the entire church, which was called by Constantine (who may still have been alive when it was carved) to reach a defined answer to the much debated question of the nature of Jesus.  Was he divine?  Was he merely human?  What was his relationship to God the Father?  Where did the Holy Spirit fit in?  Nicea was by all accounts the scene of battles that were not just verbal.  In the end a definition of the nature of Jesus was achieved.  Many Christian churches, including the Catholic Church, still recite the creed drawn up at the end of the Council.  We still say that  "I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages.  God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;" and that the Holy Spirit is "the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified..."  

"Dogmatic" Sarcophagus
Roman, c. 340
Vatican, Pio-Christiano Museum

It is interesting, therefore, to see that at the upper left of the sarcophagus is the scene of the Creation of Eve.  Adam and Eve are tiny figures, like children.  Adam is shown lying on the ground, asleep.  Eve is standing before three identical bearded male figures.  The central figure is shown as seated on a throne, with his feet on a footstool, making a gesture of blessing.  One of them is standing behind the chair, while the third is shown with his hand on Eve's head, while looking towards the seated figure.  These "men" are the Trinity.  God the Father is the seated figure, the Holy Spirit may be the figure with his hand on Eve's head, while Jesus may be the figure behind the Father.  (Or, perhaps Jesus is the one with his hand on Eve's head and the Holy Spirit may be in the background.  I think, however, that since it is the Spirit who is "the giver of life" the first reading is the correct one.)

This type of image, with three identical male figures, is the image that most often appears in the succeeding Byzantine tradition.  It also derives from the mysterious visitation of Abraham by three men (Genesis 18). This has usually been interpreted as an Old Testament foreshadowing of the Trinity. A Byzantine image of this type is found in the mosaics of the church of San Vitale at Ravenna.

Trinity, Mosaic
Byzantine, 6th Century
 Ravenna, Church of San Vitale

Over time the context of the visit to Abraham was eliminated from the image and it became simply an image of three identical Persons. The most famous image of this type is the icon by the Russian icon painter, Andrei Rublev.

Andrei Rublev, Trinity
Russian, c. 1411
Moscow, Tretyakov Gallery

However, it also appears occasionally in the West, where it is more specifically seen as the Three Persons of the Godhead, as for example in this illumination of the Coronation of the Virgin by Jean Fouquet from the 1450s.

Jean Fouquet, Coronation of the Virgin
From Hours of Etienne Chevalier
French, 1450s
Chantilly, Musée Condé  
MS 71

The Throne of Grace:  Old Man, Christ Crucified and Dove
Images of this type depict God the Father, shown as an older or even old man, holding in His arms Christ suspended on the cross, accompanied by the Dove of the Holy Spirit. The title for this type of image comes from a reference in the Letter to the Hebrews “So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help. “ (Hebrews 4: 16). This reference suggests a different slant for these images than the strictly Trinitarian images above.  They are less intended for our awestruck adoration and more as reminders of Christ’s sufferings for us as a source of mercy and grace. They are more contemplative images, meant to raise our sense of pity and to remind us that we stand in need of the forgiveness gained for us at such a price. It is also a reminder that, in His earthly life, even in the dark passage between Good Friday afternoon and Easter Sunday morning, Christ was still part of the Trinity.

Among the earliest are the images found in prayer books or books of hours, which were used by the faithful for daily prayer.

Throne of Grace
From Psalter-Hours of Ghiluys de Boisleux
French (Arras), c. 1246-1260
New  York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 730, fol.  203r

Trinity of St. Thomas Becket
From a  Book of Hours
English (London), c. 1310-1320
London, British Library
MS Royal 2 B VIII, fol. 299

Jacopo di Cione and Workshop, Throne of Grace
Central Panel of the San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece
Italian, c. 1370-1371
London, National Gallery

Part of an Alabaster Altarpiece
English (or possibly French), 15th Century
Paris, Musée de Cluny, Musée national du Moyen Age
Probably the most famous image of this type is the fresco by Masaccio in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.  

Masaccio, Trinity
Italian, c. 1427
Florence, Church of Santa Maria Novella

This image broke much new ground for painting, as it is one of the very first paintings set in a specific, well delineated perspective space. Viewed from the floor of the church it appears that suddenly, above a side altar we see a wall tomb, showing a skeleton with an Italian momento mori inscription that, when translated, reads “As I was so you are, as I am so you will be”.  A space has opened in the otherwise flat wall. It is as if there is a niche or chapel into which we could walk, if we were able to climb over the altar and the tomb. In this space we see the Trinity of God the Father, shown as an older, grey haired man, holding in His outstretched arms the cross on which Christ is suspended. Between the Father’s beard and the halo over Christ’s head is a foreshortened view of the Holy Spirit "descending like a dove” (Matthew 3:16). At the foot of the cross are the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist, the traditional witnesses of the Crucifixion. To the outside of the niche or chapel knee a man and woman, presumably the donors of the work. The work itself is huge and quite stunning in its realism, although there are still some perspectival problems evident. The actual front to back imagined space of the niche is much more shallow than is hinted at in the very deep perspective indicated by the drawing of the barrel vault and there is considerable discomfort in the way in which God the Father’s body fits into the “space” provided for it. Nonetheless the effect of this painting has always been seen to be immense.   

Andrea del Castagno, The Holy Trinity with St. Jerome and Two Female Saints
Italian, c. 1453
Florence, Church of Santissima Annunziata

Sandro Botticelli, Pala della Convertite
Italian, c. 1491-1493
London, Courtauld Gallery

Its influence carried far and wide, so that its reverberations are seen, not only in Italy, but as far away as Germany. When Albrecht rer painted his grand Landauer Altarpiece, the Adoration of the Trinity by All the Saints in 1511, it is this image that was clearly in his mind. However, his God the Father appears to be seated on the rainbow, while the Holy Spirit hovers overhead and the cross is held in the air, instead of being planted in a physical space. Nevertheless, the visionary quality of both works is the same. We are offered a glimpse into another reality, an opening as it were into eternity.

Durer, Adoration of the Trinity
All Saints Altar (Landauer Altar)
German, 1511
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

This theme continued to be an important one throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth century and on into the eighteenth century, both North and South of the Alps.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Throne of Grace
German, c. 1515-1518
Bremen, Kunsthalle

Guido Reni, Throne of Grace
Italian, 1625
Rome, Church of Santa Trinità dei Pellegrini

Throne of Grace
Austrian, c. 1740-1760
Private collection

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Throne of Grace
Italian, c. 1750
Location Unknown:  Picture Courtesy Frick Art Reference Llibrary (New York)

The Sorrow of God

A related theme is the Sorrow of God, about which I have written extensively elsewhere (click here).  This theme also focuses on the dead Christ as a member of the Trinity.  However, it offers a slightly different view of the participation of the Father in the suffering of the Son, sustained by the Holy Spirit.  The theme appears to derive from the theme of the Suffering Mother, the Pietà.  One difference from the Throne of Grace type is that the cross is nowhere in evidence.

Among the earliest is this painting, by Jean Malouel, in the Louvre.  The Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist join with the Father in sorrow. 

Attributed to Jean Malouel, The Sorrow of God
Flemish, c. 1400
Paris, Musée du Louvre

In these images God the Father seems to reflect on the cost of the love which could sacrifice that portion of the Godhead known as the Son in order to destroy the power of death over His creation.  In many of the pictures of this type the Father presents the humanity of His Son, now dead, to us to demonstrate the extent of His love for us.

Master of Flemalle, The Sorrow of God
Flemish, 1430
Frankfurt, Städelsches Kunstinstitut

Master of Mary of Burgundy, The Sorrow of God
From Hours of Mary of Burgundy
Flemish (Ghent or Bruges), c. 1480
Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Inv. # 78 B 12, fol. 13v

Jean Bellegambe, Trinity Triptych Altarpiece
Flemish, c. 1500
Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts

El Greco, The Sorrow of God
Greco-Spanish, c. 1577-1579
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Ludovico Caracci, The Sorrow of God
Italian, c. 1590-1591
Vatican City, Pinacoteca

Jusepe Ribera, The Sorrow of God
Spanish, c. 1635
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Old Man, Young Man and Dove

This is probably the most easily recognized image of the Trinity and the image that most people will probably call to mind when asked to describe an image of the Trinity. It is the most straightforward of the images of the Trinity that we have and has been the preferred image of the Trinity since the Counter-Reformation (second half of the sixteenth century).

The earliest appearances of this image that I have seen appear, not as images specifically of the Trinity, but as the image of the Trinity used in some Quattrocento images of the Coronation of the Virgin.

In earlier images of this type, such as the 13th-century apse mosaic by Jacopo Torriti in S. Maria Maggiore Basilica in Rome, the Virgin Mary is crowned as Queen of Heaven by Her Son alone.

Jacopo Torriti, Coronation of the Virgin
Italian, 1295
Rome, Church of Santa Maria Maggiore

During the Quattrocento the images of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit begin to appear, though not necessarily in the same area of the painting as the images of Mary and Christ. An example is the Coronation of the Virgin by the Venetian, Michele Giambono, dating to around 1448.

Michele Giambono, Coronation of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1448
Venice, Gallerie dell'Accademia

But these are soon replaced by the image of the Trinity as older Father, younger Son and Holy Spirit dove placed in the same area of the picture. An example of this is a painting by Dirk Bouts that is contemporary with the painting by Giambono.

Dirk Bouts, Coronation of the Virgin
Flemish, c. 1450
Vienna, Akademie der bildenden Kunste

This arrangement of the Three Persons becomes the preferred image of the Trinity from the beginning of the sixteenth century to our own time. Some examples are:

 The Venetian,Titian, in the Trinity in Glory

Titian, The Trinity in Glory
Italian, c. 1551-1554
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

The Fleming, Rubens, as the upper half of a larger painting of the Gonzaga Family Adoring the Holy Trinity.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Gonzaga Family Adoring the Trinity
Flemish, c. 1604-1605
Mantua, Palazzo Ducale

The Flemish compatriot of Rubens, Hendrick van Balen, from the 1620s.

Hendrick Van Balen, The Holy Trinity
Flemish, c. 1620s
Antwerp, Sint Jakobskerk

The Spaniard, Antonio de Pereda (active 1630 – 1678)

Antonio Pereda, The Trinity
Spanish, c. 1660
Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts

These early images, showing the Trinity in the clouds of Heaven, surrounded by angels and saints, quickly became the preferred image and was replicated again and again during the 17th and 18th century. It also became customary to show Christ wearing only a reddish wrap so that the wounds of the Crucifixion can be shown, and accompanied by the cross and other symbols of the Passion. Thus the final image of the Trinity incorporates some of the elements of the earlier images (with the Crucified either on the cross or as the Throne of Grace). Some examples of later compositions are:

A painting by the 17th-century German artist Johann Heinrich Schönfeld, painted in Naples in 1650-1651 and now in the Louvre.

Johann Heinrich Schoenfeld,
German, c. 1650-1651
 Paris, Musédu Louvre

The painted ceiling of the sacristy of the church of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples by theSouth Italian Francesco Solimena of 1707.

Francesco Solimena, Adoration of the Trinity
Italian, 1707
Naples, Church of San Domenico

The 1791 painting by Spanish painter, Vicente Lopez y Portana.

Vicente Lopez y Portana, The Adoration of the Trinity
Spanish, c. 1791-1792
Private Collection

Unusual Representations

Christ as a Child
An odd painting, a panel from an altarpiece in the Diocesan Museum in Pelplin, Poland, presents one of the most unusual representations of the Trinity.

Anonymous, Trinity
Polish (?), c. 1400-1499
Pelplin (Poland), Diocesan Museum

It is painted in Gothic style, but probably painted conservatively during the 15th century, as the Gothic lingered longer in more easterly parts of Europe. In the central oval of the painting, shown as though it were a tree, growing out of the ground, is the Trinity, surrounded by symbols of the Evangelists and adoring angels. In the lower region of the painting the Mystic Lamb of Revelation occupies another circular section. The Lamb is pointed to by St. John the Baptist, as in the Bible. Next to John, a crowned woman holds a chalice to catch the Blood flowing from the wound in the Lamb’s breast. A rather mysterious woman holds what appears to be the disembodied head of a goat, while St. John the Evangelist stands holding the Chalice and Host in one hand, while pointing to them with his other hand. At the point that the “tree” emerges from the ground, there appear to be human bones. This last detail suggests that the “tree” is the same tree as the cross, which was traditionally believed to have been made of wood that grew out of the tomb of Adam. The entire painting is unusual, but the most unusual aspect is that Christ, who is held in the arms of the Father, is not the grown man of the other Trinity images, but is a young child. He holds a small banner bearing two images, the Lamb and a bird. This bird is not the Holy Spirit, which appears above the two figures. I suspect that the two images may be references to the sacrificial Passion and the Resurrection. The image is then, a meditation on many aspects of the Faith, not just the Trinity, but of the history of salvation. It certainly deserves more study.

Symbolic Refrences to the Trinity
Occasionally, symbols have been used as stand-ins for figural images.

Federico Zuccaro, Chapel of the Angels
Italian, c. 1600
Rome, Church of Il Gesù

Federico Zuccaro, Seven Archangels Adoring the Trinity
Italian, c. 1600
Rome, Church of Il Gesù

One really interesting example is the altarpiece of Seven Archangels Adoring the Trinity by Federico Zuccaro, located in the Chapel of the Angels, one of the chapels of the Jesuit mother church of the Gesù in Rome. It represents Michael, the Archangel, shown in armor, surrounded by other angels, kneeling in adoration before an elevated symbol of the Trinity. The symbol is an equilateral triangle, surrounded by radiant light and containing the Greek letters for Alpha and Omega. These are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, which are themselves symbols for the Beginning and the End and are used for this purpose in Revelation 21:6.

A much later example of the same theme was painted by the young Francisco de Goya for the Basilica of Nuestra Señora del Pilar in his home town of Saragossa in 1772. It represents The Adoration of the Name of God, but the symbol used is the triangle, similar to the image chosen by Zuccaro.

Francisco de Goya, Adoration of the Name of God
Spanish, 1772
Saragossa, Church of Nuestra Seňora del Pilar

Surely, the multiplicity of image types for the representation of the Trinity reflects the difficulty of imagining in human terms this great Mystery of the Triune Godhead.

1.  New American Bible, Introduction to 2 Corinthians, USCCB, at

2.   The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints. Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, 1275. First Edition Published 1470. Englished by William Caxton, First Edition 1483, Edited by F.S. Ellis, Temple Classics, 1900 (Reprinted 1922, 1931.)

3.  Alighieri, Dante.  Divina Commedia, Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, stanzas 115-122, written first half of 14th century (1300-1341). English translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1867.

© M. Duffy, 2011, images updated June 2022

Originally, posted June 19, 2011.