Icons of God the Trinity

A human Christ is a visible being that can be painted
(St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church, Oshawa, ON)

Creating an image of God was very controversial in the early Church. Many centuries after the iconoclastic heresy, we find that it is still controversial in today’s world.

The 7th Ecumenical Council, at Nicaea in 787 AD, decreed Christ our God was born of a human mother and took on the flesh and blood of a man and, therefore, an image of Christ as an earthly being indeed can be created. From the moment of Christ’s birth, he was as visible and tangible as any human and, if he could be seen, he could be painted.

St. Paul said of Jesus Christ, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation,” (Colossians 1: 15). Furthermore, a canonical icon of Christ, the Pantocrator, shows the Person Christ in the visible aspects of his humanity. Church doctrine teaches Christ is not half man and half God. Christ is entirely man and entirely God. As St. Leo the Great wrote, Christ is “complete in what is his own and complete in what is ours”. Had the technology of modern photography existed in the first century, it would have been possible to photograph Christ. To deny this is to deny the humanity of Christ.

In the Gospel of St. John, there is an interesting excerpt in which the Apostle Philip asks Jesus, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us." Christ’s reply is: "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves."(John 14: 8—11)

Therefore, Christ Himself set the tone for accepting the idea that God became visible and tangible. However, while we have an iconographic image of the human Jesus passed down to us by St. Luke, one might wonder what the other two Persons of the Holy Trinity look like. There are a great many icons of the Holy Trinity in Ukrainian churches. Clearly this question warrants examination.

A common image of the Holy Trinity shows the Father portrayed as an old man with a long beard, the Son portrayed as a young man with a short beard, and the Holy Spirit portrayed as a dove. This type of image, God the Father as the “Ancient of Days”, is common in both the Eastern Church and the Western Church. In one of his earliest commissions in Canada, the Ukrainian-Canadian iconographer Peter Lipinski painted exactly such a picture for Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, located in Star Peno, Alberta.

An icon of the Holy Trinity, by Peter Lipinski, in Assumption
of the BVM Ukrainian Catholic Church, Star Peno, AB.

There have been many supporters of this type of image as well as many other forms of icons portraying the Holy Trinity. These portrayals are not without their roots.
The image of the Holy Spirit portrayed as a dove is taken from the passage of the Gospel of St. Mark describing the baptism of Christ: “As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.” (Mark 1: 10) However, while the Holy Spirit descended on Christ in the manner of a dove, this does not mean the Holy Spirit took on the flesh and blood of an actual dove. This does not even mean that the Holy Spirit looks something like a dove. The Bible frequently references the Holy Spirit but one gets the impression from most of these references that the Holy Spirit is invisible.

A portrayal of a dove by Roman Kowal representing the holy
spirit in Sacred Heart Ukrainian Catholic Church, Gimli, MB.

Many iconologists have questioned why artists portray God the Father as an old man with a long beard. One might assume, since Christ was approximately 33 years old at the crucifixion, “his father” must look like He would be roughly double Christ’s age. Of course, this logic does not consider God is absolutely timeless. The Prophet Daniel had a dream in which God had a long white beard but this vision is not necessarily proof of what God physically looks like, nor does the Old Testament infer that Daniel actually met God face to face. (Many Theologians believe that the “Ancient of Days” in Daniel’s dream was actually Christ and not God the Father.)

God the Father painted by Theodor Baran, in St. George’s
Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, Saskatoon, SK.

Ultimately, iconography must have a basis in what can be seen by the human eye. The image of the Holy Trinity was only seen and described in one passage of the Bible when God visited His servant Abraham as described in Genesis:

The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great tree of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. (Genesis 18: 1–2).

In this passage from Genesis, there is no doubt what is sometimes called the “Old Testament Trinity” was a visible entity. Therefore, we can make an image of the three mysterious visitors. Of course the Trinity is eternal and has always been present so to use expressions like “Old Testament Trinity” or “New Testament Trinity” can be theologically confusing even if we only use these terms to describe a particular style of icon.

Icon of the Hospitality of Abraham from
St. James Orthodox Church, Beaver Lake, AB

The icon of what some call the “Old Testament Trinity”, more correctly called the “Hospitality of Abraham”, made an early appearance in the Church and was first recorded in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome in the fourth century. The Greek fathers of the Church construed this Old Testament event to be an appearance of the Holy Trinity. Details of the three “men” being served by Abraham and Sarah or the killing of the fatted calf were often placed in the icon as well.

The Eastern Church embraced the depiction of this scene from Genesis of three mysterious “men” appearing to Abraham by the oak of Mamre for use as an indirect iconographical representation of the Holy Trinity. The icon portrays the visitors as three angels, illustrating they are of the Divine World. This historical event, when rendered in the form of an icon, demonstrates the appearance of God to man and symbolizes the promise of salvation. It is linked to the day of Pentecost in which the final revelation of the Holy Trinity fulfills this promise of redemption. Therefore, this icon of the Holy Trinity ties together the foundation of the Old Testament Church and the creation of the New Testament Church.

In the Hospitality of Abraham icon, the three figures clearly sit together as equals and this illustrates the equality of the three Persons of the Trinity. Their young beardless faces are pretty much identical, underscoring the single nature of the Godhead. The figures are neither masculine nor feminine but rather seemingly transcend the earthly state of gender. The Orthodox Church deemed the icon of the Hospitality of Abraham best agrees with its teaching and for many years it was the only manner of representing the Trinity. St. Andrii Rublev executed the best known painting of the Hospitality of Abraham in the 15th century at the Monastery of the Trinity and St. Sergius.

A Rublev-style Trinity was used to adorn this kivot at the former
Holy Trinity Bukowinian Orthodox Church, Ottawa, ON

In 1551, the Russian “Council of 100 Chapters” judged Rublev’s Hospitality of Abraham icon was a “perfect example” of Orthodox iconography. Iconographers copy its classical style time and time again. Rublev reduced the details to a minimum and one focuses on just the three figures sitting around an altar like table. In the centre of the table is a chalice and all other details are entirely incidental.

However, one could argue that Rublev’s Holy Trinity is not entirely perfect because Abraham and Sarah are not present in the icon. The essence of the Theophany is that the Trinity was seen. If one removes the people who saw the Trinity from the icon, there perhaps is a case to be made that the lesson of the Hospitality of Abraham has been diminished.

A Rublev-style Trinity forms the patron icon on the iconostas of
Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Canora, SK

Artists frequently represent the Holy Spirit as a dove in many icons such as in the decent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and in icons of the Annunciation; however, this still remains controversial. The Great Moscow Council of 1667 determined iconographers must only use the dove to represent the Holy Spirit in icons of the Baptism of Christ since this is the only biblical reference linking the Holy Spirit with an image of a dove.

An icon of the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father –
Holy Spirit Ukrainian Orthodox Sobor, Regina, SK

Nonetheless, Ukrainian iconographers, whether Orthodox or Catholic, don’t necessarily feel bound to follow the canons of the Russian Orthodox Church. Even a great many Russian Orthodox iconographers have ignored these canons; although, this is becoming less and less the case.

At Holy Trinity Cathedral in Winnipeg, seat of the Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada, there is an enormous icon of the Holy Trinity executed by the iconographer, Leo Mol, above the main entrance. It depicts God the Father as an old man and the Holy Spirit as dove and this demonstrates that such imagery is very common despite the canons.

Leo Mol’s massive icon of the Trinity on the façade of
Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral, Winnipeg, MB.

The Western Church greatly strayed from the early concepts of portraying the Trinity and western portrayals of the Trinity eventually became very fanciful. In one such portrayal of the Trinity, God the Father is an old man, the Holy Spirit is a dove, and Christ is portrayed as a child. While there is no scriptural basis for such an image, it nonetheless eventually was absorbed into the repertoire of some Eastern Right iconographers. One such example is a painting of the Trinity by Peter Lipinski found in the collection of icons of the former Holy Trinity Bukowinian Orthodox Church in Ottawa. The work is pure fantasy on canvass, complete with little angels bobbing up and down on a sea of clouds.

Peter Lipinski’s Trinity taken from the former Holy Trinity Bukowinian Orthodox Church, Ottawa, ON

While the Seventh Ecumenical Council established the worthiness (perhaps even the necessity) of icons in our churches, it did not establish all-encompassing universal rules for icon painting. The rules, such as they are, have been established within the church as a matter of tradition over a period of centuries and sometimes one tradition will clash with another. Theologians and iconologists are re-examining the concept of representing the Holy Trinity in an icon. There are trends within various Eastern Rite churches to return to a more authentic and original style of iconography — a form sometimes termed “canonically correct iconography” — but the debate seems far from ending soon.