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.

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