Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Should We Paint God the Father?

This article first appeared in September 2010, and is reposted in response to comments from readers made on last week’s post about the artistic representation of Our Lady.

One of the most famous pieces of sacred art that exists is Michelangelo’s fresco in the Sistine Chapel of God giving the spark of life to Adam. Despite its popularity and familiarity, I had often wondered about the validity of representing God the Father.

My own instincts run against the idea of portraying God the Father in a painting at all; even when I was a child, I always thought that the white-whiskered God looked more like God the Grandfather, than God the Father. Later on in life, this was reinforced by training in icon painting. I was pretty sure, but not certain, that it was not part of the tradition. Certainly, I have never painted an icon of God the Father. Furthermore, the theology of St Theodore the Studite in regard to sacred imagery, which is accepted by both Eastern and Western churches, bases the argument for the creation of any figurative art upon the fact that we can portray the person of Christ as man. The person of God the Father is a spiritual being and most certainly not man. This would seem to suggest that we should not portray the Father as a man either.

I quietly suspected that the white-bearded God of Michelangelo or William Blake or even my favourite Baroque artist, Velazquez, were all in error. I was not so worried about Blake, who was not Catholic and had eccentric beliefs, but I didn’t like the idea that Michelangelo, and especially Velazquez might be in error.

I was forced to rethink this recently, when I was approached to do a commission that involves the portrayal of the Father. Rather than reject it out of hand, I thought I had better find out where the Church stands on this.

Here’s what my first investigations have revealed. For the first thousand years or so of Christianity, East and West, there was little portrayal of the Father figuratively. Then images started to appear in both the Eastern and Western traditions, though it was more common in the West.

There are two simple arguments that I have found for the representation of the Father: the first is that Christ said in John 14, 9 that whoever has seen me has seen the Father. This would seem to open up to a representation of the Father as the Son. So, one could say, seeing an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is also seeing one of the Sacred Heart of the Father, with the heart of the Father understood as a symbol of His love.

The second is that the white-bearded figure with whom we are all familiar is the Ancient of Days who appears in the seventh chapter of the book of Daniel. This is the source of so many familiar portrayals of the Father. In the East there is a tradition known as the New Testament Trinity. This title would distinguish it from the Hospitality of Abraham, in which three angelic strangers of Gensis 18 represent the three Persons of the Trinity. Below is a Greek Orthodox New Testament Trinity on the ceiling of the entrance to the Vatopedion Monastery on Mount Athos. The Catholic Church allows for the interpretation of the Ancient of Days as the Father, which justifies the portrayal of the Father. (I have been told that Pope Benedict XIV issued pronouncement on this in 1745, although I have not been able to validate this beyond a reference on Wikipedia). It also allows for the interpretation of the Ancient of Days as Christ. Since the 1667 Synod of Moscow, the Russian Orthodox Church has forbidden the portrayal of God the Father as a man. Consistent with this, it interprets the Ancient of Days strictly as the Son. It is this pronouncement by the Russian church that gave me the idea, wrongly, that it had never been part of the Eastern tradition and that the whole Eastern Church forbids it.

There is a Western tradition of portrayal of the Trinity in a type known as the Throne of Mercy, in which the Father sits on his throne and presents His crucified Son to the viewer, while a dove rests on the cross or hovers just above it. It was this that was explicitly mentioned by Benedict XIV. This tradition goes right back the medieval era times in the Western Church, and has continued even into the 20th century.

So where do I stand on this now? It seems clear that the portrayal of the Father as a grey-haired man is permitted. I would feel on safest ground however, following the traditional presentations, such as the Mercy Throne image. Outside that, I would consider painting images of the Father, but would be cautious, unwilling to promote any trend of anthropomorphizing God the Father in case the transcendence of God is further compromised in people’s imaginations.

It is also worth pointing out that when God is portrayed as a single person in the form of the Ancient of Days, we cannot be sure that it is the Father who is portrayed. The artist might, quite justifiably, have the intention of representing the Son. I have not, for example, been able to find an authoritative text that tells us precisely which person of the Trinity either Michelangelo or Blake intended us to be looking at. (I would welcome comments from readers on this and any other related point - I am still open to formation on this point!)

Velazquez’s Crowning of the Virgin
The New Testament Trinity in Mt Athos, Greece
A Mercy Trinity by Ribera, 17th century
A Gothic pieta, with God the Father as the Ancient of Days
An early Gothic Mercy Throne
Mercy Throne, 16th century, German
The Ancient of Days, William Blake, English 18th century
For those who are interested in a deeper discussion of the theological and artistic principles behind the traditional imagery of the Church, investigate the www.Pontifex.University Master of Sacred Arts program.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: