Thus says the wisdom of God:
the forerunner of his prodigies of long ago;
from of old I was poured forth,
at the first, before the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no fountains or springs of water;
before the mountains were settled into place,
before the hills, I was brought forth;
while as yet the earth and fields were not made,
nor the first clods of the world.”When the Lord established the heavens I was there,
when he marked out the vault over the face of the deep;
when he made firm the skies above,
when he fixed fast the foundations of the earth;
when he set for the sea its limit,
so that the waters should not transgress his command;
then was I beside him as his craftsman,
and I was his delight day by day,
playing before him all the while,
playing on the surface of his earth;
and I found delight in the human race.”
“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth,
he will guide you to all truth.
He will not speak on his own,
but he will speak what he hears,
and will declare to you the things that are coming.
He will glorify me,
because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.
Everything that the Father has is mine;
for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine
and declare it to you.”
From the Catechism of the Catholic Church: The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them. It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the “hierarchy of the truths of faith”. The whole history of salvation is identical with the history of the way and the means by which the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, reveals himself to men “and reconciles and unites with himself those who turn away from sin.”
How can a mystery as impenetrable as the Trinity be understood visually? The dilemma of depicting three aspects of the same Godhead has led to varying artistic solutions over time.
The type of three identical men most often appears in the Byzantine tradition and derives from the mysterious visitation of Abraham by three men (Genesis 18). In Christianity this has usually been interpreted as an Old Testament foreshadowing of the Trinity. We see a Byzantine image of this type in the mosaics of the church of San Vitale at Ravenna, Italy (below). At the center are three haloed figures, indistinguishable from one another, seated at the table with bread placed before them and Abraham at left bringing meat for their meal. This has been combined with the sacrifice of Isaac at right, with the combination of scenes alluding to the sacrifice of the Mass, where the ultimate sacrifice of the body of Christ as the true bread is offered up for all in the presence of the Blessed Trinity.
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. A Russian art historian writes: “In Rublev’s icon, the form that most clearly represents the idea of the consubstantiality of the Trinity’s three persons is a circle. It is the foundation of the composition. At the same time, the angels are not inserted into the circle, but create it instead, thus our eyes can’t stop at any of the three figures and rather dwell inside this limited space. The impactful center of the composition is the cup with the calf’s head. It hints at the crucifixion sacrifice and serves as the reminder of the Eucharist. Around the cup, the silent dialogue of gestures takes place.”
From the Italian Renaissance, Masaccio’s Trinity (below) was the first painting to use scientific perspective, meaning that it creates a convincing illusion of space with mathematical precision by drawing orthogonal converging lines that appear to recede in the imaginary distance into the archway.
The architecture is a Roman triumphal arch, and indicates the Renaissance interest in Classical art and architecture. We also see a Roman coffered ceiling, barrel vault, pilasters and columns. The figures are arranged in a pyramidal shape with three key figures at the center: God the Father behind Christ on the cross, and the dove of the Holy Spirit, which is difficult to see since it looks like part of God’s collar.
God is standing on a ledge, rather than floating in an imaginary, heavenly space as he would have been shown in Byzantine and medieval works, and we can even see one of his feet! The Virgin Mary and St. John stand at the foot of the Cross, and the donors who paid for this fresco are shown on the outside, painted outside the archway as if they’re in our space.
At the bottom, we see a tomb with a skeleton. This part of the fresco had been covered over for many years, and it was not until recently that it was uncovered. Above the skeleton is an inscription, which states (translated), “What you are I once was; what I am, you will be”. This message tells us of our own mortality and future death. In the end, we will end up like the skeleton as well, and yet, the crucifixion above is a sign of hope for eternal life.
Looking at the perspectival illusion again, we see that the vanishing point is located at the viewer’s eye level. The Renaissance artist and writer Vasari wrote that it has “a barrel vault drawn in perspective, and divided into squares with rosettes that diminish and are foreshortened so well that there seems to be a hole in the wall.”
Albrecht Dürer, one of the greatest artists of the Northern Renaissance, was also a mathematician, theorist, engraver and printmaker. In 1511 he created the altarpiece (below) for the chapel of an almshouse for poor artists in Nuremberg known as the Twelve Brothers’ House. It is also called the Landauer Altarpiece after the patron of the poorhouse. Made of a single panel, the altarpiece was meant to be displayed in the elaborate wooden frame also designed by Dürer, though they are no longer united and are digitally reconstructed here.
The painting’s complex iconography depicts the living crucified Christ at the center with God the Father wearing a kingly crown, and the radiant dove of the Holy Spirit above him. Angelic and saintly figures fill out the upper half and earthly figures populate the space below. At the very bottom, a landscape with a lake stretches into the distance, with the lone figure of the artist himself at the far right, standing next to a panel that reads, “Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg made this 1511 years after the Virgin.”
The depiction of God the father supporting the cross of Christ with the Holy Spirit nearby is known as the Throne of Mercy or Mercy Seat image, or Gnadenstuhl, that celebrates the triune nature of the godhead and glorifies the Eucharistic act of God sacrificing the Son. This makes it an appropriate image for an altar, where the body of the Son is being continually offered up. We see in this image the tender love of the Father as he offers up the body of the Son for our salvation, with the Holy Spirit as the agent of the transubstantiation of the host into the true body of Christ.
El Greco painted his only version of the Trinity (below) in 1577. There are many other Baroque-era paintings of the Trinity that use this basic format based on the motif of Michelangelo’s Pieta, with the semi-nude corpse of Christ being supported, though, inspired by Durer’s painting, he is held in the arms of God the Father instead of the Virgin Mary. El Greco’s idiosyncratic style is visible here, with the bluish corpse, sulfurous yellows, and jagged flashes and highlights. The artist’s sense of pathos is revealed in the anguished faces of the angels and the tender gaze of the God the Father upon the body of the Son, with the dove of the Holy Spirit hovering protectively above.
In Central Europe during the Baroque period and after, Holy Trinity Columns became popular, with the most famous example shown below. The Olomouc Column was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites in 2000 as “one of the most exceptional examples of the apogee of central European Baroque artistic expression.”
On this Solemnity of the Blessed Trinity, let’s conclude with a prayer:
O ETERNAL TRINITY
a prayer of St. Catherine of Sienna
Eternal God, eternal Trinity, you have made the blood of Christ so precious through his sharing in your divine nature. You are a mystery as deep as the sea; the more I search, the more I find, and the more I find the more I search for you. But I can never be satisfied; what I receive will ever leave me desiring more. When you fill my soul I have an even greater hunger, and I grow more famished for your light. I desire above all to see you, the true light, as you really are.
I have tasted and seen the depth of your mystery and the beauty of your creation with the light of my understanding. I have clothed myself with your likeness and have seen what I shall be. Eternal Father, you have given me a share in your power and the wisdom that Christ claims as his own, and your Holy Spirit has given me the desire to love you. You are my Creator, eternal Trinity, and I am your creature. You have made of me a new creation in the blood of your Son, and I know that you are moved with love at the beauty of your creation, for you have enlightened me.
Eternal Trinity, Godhead, mystery deep as the sea, you could give me no greater gift than the gift of yourself. For you are a fire ever burning and never consumed, which itself consumes all the selfish love that fills my being. Yes, you are a fire that takes away the coldness, illuminates the mind with its light and causes me to know your truth. By this light, reflected as it were in a mirror, I recognise that you are the highest good, one we can neither comprehend nor fathom. And I know that you are beauty and wisdom itself. The food of angels, you gave yourself to man in the fire of your love.
You are the garment which covers our nakedness, and in our hunger you are a satisfying food, for you are sweetness and in you there is no taste of bitterness, O triune God!
For more on Rublev’s icon, see http://www.faith-theology.com/2016/05/gods-selfie-sermon-on-rublevs-icon-of.html
The Trinity fresco by Massacio is engraved in my imagination from art history classes. When we traveled to Florence a decade back, I believe that it was under scaffolding. Another trip. The mystery of the Trinity. How many ways we try to describe and depict what can never be fully comprehended.
Do drop by for the series that I started on the Ministry of Paul. I’m using the frescos from St. Paul Outside the Walls (all 36 of them). This will take quite a few Sundays to illustrate.
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Yes, it’s a standard for art history 101 classes!
I do not think that my 102 professor ever got out of the Renaissance 🙂 Maybe not even out of Florence. I had to learn about Rodin and Rothko on my own.
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