“Show us the Father” – How The Father May or May Not be Depicted in Orthodox Iconography

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Read through any collection of Gary Larson’s The Far Side cartoons, and you will doubtless come across a cartoon image of God as an old man, usually gigantic in proportion and surrounded by the clouds of “heaven.”  This kind of cartoon image has become the popular depiction of God within our popular culture, from the Sunday morning funny papers to popular films such as Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail.  Perhaps drawing inspiration from Michelangelo’s famous painting of the Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, the image of God as an old man has been indelibly imprinted upon the consciousness of Western society.  An interesting by-product of this sort of depiction of God is the inclusion of Jesus alongside him, making two figures, Jesus and his Father.

Most Orthodox Christians are aware of the Church’s prohibition of any depiction of God the Father.  The 1667 Synod of Moscow canonically forbade the depiction of God the Father in icons, though this canonical decision has not always been obeyed. Icons of an “Old Man” figure called “Lord Sabaoth” and “Ancient of Days” are often claimed to be images of the Father and often claimed to be something else.  To further complicate matters, St. Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity depicts the three Persons of the Holy Trinity in angelic form.  What then are the theological principles that prevent us from depicting the Father in iconography, and in what particular ways can He be depicted if at all?

Iconicity

It is commonly said that the Father cannot be depicted in icons, because the Father is invisible while the Son is incarnate and visible, but is this the reason? It cannot be entirely so, for we depict invisible, spiritual beings all the time such as the angelic hosts.  Orthodox hymnography regularly addresses the angels as “the bodiless powers,” attesting to the fact that they are pure spirit, pure nous, or pure energy.  Nevertheless, we depict them in human form. Virtually every Orthodox temple will have images of the Archangels in this fashion.  So then, the prohibition of depicting the Father does not stem merely from His invisible nature. Rather, the reason is far more theologically significant than mere visibility or invisibility.

To understand this, we must introduce the concept of iconicity, which is the ability of a thing to be imaged, that is to say, the possibility of a thing to have a thought-image or idealization.  For example, I may stroll through a garden and see a beautiful flower.  If I were then to sit down at an easel with a brush and palette, I can imagine an idealization of that beautiful flower and paint its image on the canvas.  A beautifully painted image of a flower iconizes the particular flower that I saw in the garden, and it now gains the ability to inspire a sense of beauty in those who look at it as the particular flower inspired me as I strolled through the garden. The particular flower in the garden can be said to have a certain iconicity, which is actualized by the act of painting, the creation of the image.

The human person also has iconicity.  Throughout history, the ideal human form has been painted and sculpted in a variety of ways, from Greek sculpture of the Olympian gods to modern comic book heroes with their powerful musculature.  When we see an image of Superman, we see and are inspired by an icon of the ideal man (even though, and perhaps because he is an alien).  All artistic images to one degree or another are iconizing, in that they portray an idealization of a thought-image about a particular thing.

The Hypostatic Icon

So then, when we speak about God or specifically about the hypostasis of the Father, in what way does He have iconicity?  Orthodox theology of the Holy Trinity has long taught that God’s own thought-image of Himself, His own perception of Himself, His self-consciousness as it were, is realized in another hypostasis, the hypostasis of the Son.  This is to say that the iconicity of the Father is realized by the Son.  The only image of the Father that is possible is the very hypostasis of the Son.  To put it another way, the Son is the natural image of the Father, as Jesus himself said to Philip, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9).

It can be said then that it is the property of the Father to be iconized, imaged only by His Son, and it is the property of the Son to iconize the Father.  The iconicity of the Father is entirely and completely realized by the Son, so that there is no way that another image of the Father could exist alongside of and in addition to the Son. The Son entirely and completely exhausts in Himself the iconicity of the Father. So then, to see the Son is to see the only possible icon of the Father, and it is for this reason that no artistic icon of the hypostasis of Father is possible, for that icon is the Son of God himself.  Therefore, a painted icon of the Son, the incarnate Logos, Jesus Christ, is a material image of the hypostatic image of the Father, an icon of an icon.  We might say then that Orthodoxy has many images of the Father—the image of Christ Jesus Himself.

What then can be said of that famous icon of the Holy Trinity by St. Andrei Rublev?  In this icon, taking as its inspiration the hospitality of Abraham from Genesis 18, where Abraham is visited by God in the form of three men, God is depicted iconographically by the image of three angels seated around a table. Are we able then to point to each individual Angel and say that it is an image of one of the hypostases of the Holy Trinity?  Theologians are divided on this issue, and perhaps both the affirmation and negation of this notion are correct in different ways.  If we isolate one of the Angels and say that it is a direct image of the hypostasis of the Father, we would be wrong.  Of course, the Father is most definitely not an angel, therefore to depict the Father as an angel is not possible.  The Son and the Spirit alike are not angels either, so depiction of Them as angels is also incorrect.  What then do we have in this enigmatic image?

The Eidos Icon

St. Andrei Rublev’s image of the Holy Trinity is an example of the particular use of symbol to express a particular thought-idea.  We may speak of the Holy Trinity.  We may name the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  In the very act of speaking about these things we engage in a certain act of iconization.  If we engage in the apophatic mode of theology, we would say that the essence (ousia) of God is not the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit.  These are names given to the hypostases of God, but not the essence of God, which is transcendent, unknowable, and unnamable.  Therefore, to speak of the Holy Trinity is to engage in cataphatic theology.  “Apophatic” is derived from the Greek term meaning “away from speech,” and conversely “cataphatic” is derived from the term meaning ‘toward speech.”

Andrej_Rublëv_001When engaging in cataphatic theology, we may use certain manners of speech, specifically that of naming, or we may use various types of visual depiction to reference the thought-idea of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  For example, in naming one hypostasis of the Holy Trinity “Father” we are depicting this hypostasis as having certain qualities of parentage, of fatherhood, and this is an icon of sorts.  In doing so, however, we are describing the hypostasis of the Father in His eternal generation of His own hypostatic image, the Son. By naming Him “The Father,” we are saying that He has a hypostatic image, that is, by the very name of the Father, we are immediately presented with the hypostatic image of the Son.

We have distinguished, then, two types of icons: the hypostatic icon, which is the Son, and another icon which references or points to this hypostatic icon. The angelic depiction of the Father in Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon is of this second type.  It is not an icon of the hypostasis of the Father.  It is an icon of the thought-idea of Father by use of the angel as a symbol. All symbols contain a visible form, for which we can use the Greek word eidos. So we can speak about eidos icons, which symbolically depict ideas. The use of the angel as an eidos symbol carries the notion of “announcing” or “sending a message.”  In both Greek and Hebrew, the term angel simply means “messenger.”  So then, in the angelic image of the Holy Trinity, a message is sent or announced to us, which is the idea of the Holy Trinity itself, the revelation of the Holy Trinity as an idea present to our rational minds.

The Holy Spirit has an eidos icon, which is the image of a dove, seen in the icon of Theophany. St. Luke writes in his Gospel that the Spirit descended in the form,” eidos, of a dove.  The Holy Spirit is not a dove, of course, therefore the image of the Spirit as a dove is not a hypostatic icon but rather a symbolic eidos icon. In this symbol, we are reminded of the dove that Noah sent out to find the dry land after the flood.  The Spirit in the form of a dove symbolizes to us the idea that the incarnate Christ, like the dry land, is the New Creation (cf. St. Paul’s phrase “Firstborn of all creation”), the New Adam, which rises up out of the waters of baptism as the land rose up out of the flood waters as a new creation.

The Ancient of Days

The depiction of the Father as an old man, then, is not proper if it is understood as a hypostatic icon, that is, an image of the hypostasis of the Father, for the hypostasis of the Father is only depicted by His Son. The idea of the Father is depicted via the symbol of the angel.  Can the idea of the Father be depicted as an old man?  Some might argue so, though the propensity for this form to be understood as a hypostatic icon is perhaps too great, and in order to avoid this confusion, such depictions are regulated as non-canonical and prohibited by the 1667 Synod of Moscow (as they are understood to be images of the Father).

The Bible itself, however, uses the image of an old man, as an eidos image in the vision of Daniel, which he sees in a vision. “The Ancient of Days was seated; His garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head was like pure wool” (Dan. 7:9). In this context, however, we are not given the impression that this image refers to the hypostasis of the Father, but to God in His unified simplicity, i.e. in His oneness (The Synod of Moscow describes this vision as being of the Son). The idea symbolized here is the eternality of God, specifically that He exists before and after the earthly imperial powers which had subjected the Jewish people.

It is possible, then, to understand these “Old Man” icons as being icons of the “Ancient of Days,” and this is one way that they have been explicitly titled in painted icons.  The other title that the “Old Man” icons take is “Lord Sabaoth” or “Lord of Hosts,” which references the vision of Isaiah in chapter 6 of his prophecy.  Again, this image depicts the idea of God in His unified simplicity, not in His hypostatic plurality.  The One Essence of God cannot be depicted in a direct manner, but the idea of it may be referenced symbolically through these eidos icons.  Nevertheless, these icons remain on the cusp of canonical permissibility, and they should be treated with caution.

Eric Jobe

About Eric Jobe

Eric Jobe earned his Ph.D. in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. He specializes in Hebrew poetry, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Second Temple Judaism. He is also an instructor of Bible and biblical languages for the St. Macrina Orthodox Institute.

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16 comments:

  1. In the case of the Trinity Icon. Look at the perspective. Where is the vanishing point? If we notice that the vanishing point is where we are standing. Where would one have to be to have such a vanishing point? (This would put us IN the icon looking at the backside of the central figure whose wings would obscure the other two.) And which side of God’s glory did He reveal unto Moses and Elijah?

    1. That’s an interesting idea, except I’m not sure inverse perspective works like that. We are still facing the angels – or rather they are facing us. We see their fronts and their faces.

  2. I find the explanation that Danielic vision of the Anceint of Days is a symbol of God in His simplicity unconvincing. Decisive for me are not the symbols of white hair etc., but the narrative i.e. the Son of Man coming on the clouds to the Ancient of Days to receive the power and dominion. This is clearly fulfilled in Christ ascending to the Father. We can argue of course that Daniel 7 speaks generally of humanity ascending to the godlike glory through suffering, nonetheless it’s more likely that this vision is one of the sources for our trinitarian theology with clearly distinguishable persons.

    1. Okay, I’ll grant that. Seems convincing enough. In that case, then, according to the scheme I have outlined, that would be an eidos icon, and not a hypostatic icon. If I were to paint it, I would do the same for the “one like Son of Man.” I would paint the Son of Man figure as a young man of the Logos Immanuel type, with no beard and a golden garment.

  3. We can depict angels, although they are bodiless powers, in iconography because they have appeared to us. There can be no doubt that Orthodox theology considers the Ancient of Days, as well as the Angel of Great Counsel, as Christ. The angels depicted in the icon alternately known as the Hospitality of Abraham and the Holy Trinity are, simply, and perhaps not so simply, Old Testament “types”. It is generally accepted practice, as well as theologically sound, that icons may not depict God the Father, even as an old man.

    1. John,

      Here is an article that demonstrates how the two figures in Prophet Daniel’s vision need not be two persons.

      http://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/letter-to-an-iconographer-on-the-ancient-of-days/

      Eric,

      The Moscow Council of 1666-1667 has one confusing qualifier:

      “It is only in the Apocalyspe of St. John that the Father can be painted with white hair, for lack of any other possibility, because of the visions contained in it.”

      Christ has white hair in the Apocalyspe but the enthroned white-haired One is from the Book of Daniel, not the Apocalypse. I agree with your article, however, the Moscow Council seems to allow icons of the Great Judgment which depict the Father with white hair.

      To see the quote in larger context see here:

      http://classicalchristianity.com/2014/07/29/on-icons-of-the-trinity/

      Fr. John Whiteford also has an article supporting icons of the Father in certain contexts here:

      http://www.saintjonah.org/articles/ancientofdays.htm

      1. There seems to be some discrepancy in the tradition, which is fine. Our patristic tradition, and even certain councils do not always agree on everything, and the Council of Moscow was not ecumenical. I think a good mediation between these positions is to take the Ancient of Days as an eidos icon, as I have described. In this sense, it may depict the thought-idea of the Father the same as our own speech depicts the thought-idea of the Father with words. Yet, we must say that such a depiction is not a hypostatic icon in the way that icons of Christ depict his hypostasis incarnate in human flesh.

        1. This is a very good discussion because there is such a difference of opinion, even if finely nuanced. Ever since seminary days many years ago, and in many contexts since, I have never heard of the Ancient of Days and the Angel of Great Counsel representing anything else but the Logos and, to the contrary, explicitly that the Ancient of Days does not refer to the Father.

  4. I agree in general with this article, although I would say that a reticence to use icons of the ancient of days should not extend to the destruction of existing iconography of this form. God forbid that anyone even entertain the idea of painting out the Father from the Sistine Chapel should reunion with Rome ever occur, for to deface such priceless artworks as that, or the ancient of days depicted in the dome of St Saviors in Moscow, would be a crime against humanity.

    My personal concern with images of God the Father stems primarily from the similarity of such images with Jupiter and Neptune, or for that matter, Wotan. That the visual depiction of the Father, especially in Renaissance and newer Western artwork seems to lean so heavily on pagan idolatry is a real worry. Before I came into the Orthodox faith, I used to pray with an image of an old man with a white beard amongst the clouds; I have of course stopped that practice. I also once had a frightening dream, at the age of 14, in which “God the Father”, of the Jupiter/Neptune/Wotan style appeared with glowing eyes and told me not to watch Star Trek, among other baffling orders. I have accounted this terrifying dream to be of demonic origin and continue to enjoy Star Trek. Yet would I have had such a dream had I not slipped into the dangerous practice of praying to God as an old man in the clouds, influenced by such Pagan imagery?

    At the time I reckoned myself a devout Christian, but alas none of my Methodist pastors ever bothered to teach me how to pray properly. Which is ironic given that was a major focus of Wesley, but the advantage of being Orthodox is one has access to a clear set of guidance for all eventualities and is not, as in Protestantism, left largely to the mercy of one’s pastor.

  5. Thank you for your explanations. I think that when I studied Byzantine Art under Talbot Rice of Edinburgh University Scotland ( before your time) we were told it was not certain that Rublev actually called his ikon of the three angels under the Oak at or of Mamre “the Old Testament Trinity.” Is that now thought to be the case? We learned then, I think, that they were depicted with wings because they moved swiftly, one minute there the next gone, and had haloes because their faces shone.. (Maybe a trinity without the capital T meaning three persons is a better label) –Talbot Rice was an expert in Russian Orthodoxy and also language He translated radio transmissions for the allies during WW II. so his information would have been preWar in origin.

    1. I have always understood the Hospitality of Abraham to be an OT type of the Trinity, the icon portraying the visit of the angels to Abraham and Sarah and representing the Trinity. I don’t know when it began to be interpreted as such but Kontoglou says in his Ekfrasis that the icon of the Hospitality is a way to represent the Trinity. I have seen icons where the middle angel had the initials in the halo as we do for Christ in icons but this is rare and there is some debate as to whether this is proper. My first formal introduction to Orthodox iconography was in a class with Constantine Kalokyris in the mid 50s at Holy Cross so I don’t know that your experience was all that before my time. In any case I enjoy discussion about iconography at any time and any where. Thanks for the opportunity.

  6. Well, concerning Icon Ancient of Days, medieval icons clearly show its Christ. His initias IС ХС are written on such icons.

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