Portrayals of God and the Trinity in Visual Art of the Third and Fourth Centuries

Although the question of God's visibility to the human eye was a subject of much discussion by theologians, almost no surviving and parallel arguments address the related impossibility of representing God (the Father), the pre-incarnate Word, or the Trinity in visual art. Presumably, theologians who discussed the invisibility of God assumed their arguments to preclude artistic portrayal in any form but particularly as showing God with human features. In other words, the possibility may simply have been unthinkable and so nol raised. On the other hand, if they were aware of some visual art that portrayed the Supreme God, they did not directly attack it.

Despite this lack of comment, however, artists1 workshops, beginning in the fourth century* in fact produced a number of images that were meant either as actual figures or as symbolic representations of God, the visible Word, or the Trinity. The most obvious iconography, the popular presentations of Jesus healing and working wonders* such as we find sometimes rather crowded together on early Christian sarcophagus

Fig 42_The Holy Trinity I 420i (tempera or panel), Andrei n^blevic 370-1430} (Photo; Tretyakov Ga lery, Moscow, Rustia. [indgeman Art Library).

reliefs^ might have been a type of visual response to the writings of theologians such as Athanasius, who writes (.hat although God is invisible, God's power as much as God's image is manifest in the person and works of Christ, including cleansing lepers, healing the blind, and changing water to wine/5 These and other miracles mentioned by Ath anas ins are frequently represented on early fourth-century sarcophagi as well as in catacomb frescoes and fifth-century mosaics (see fig. 60, p. 143),

On the other hand, certain representations, considered alongside the extensive discussions of human inability to "see" God, suggest a level of discontinuity between popular practice and theological argument, or perhaps a perceived difference between artistic representation and verbal discourse. While it is possible that such images were so rare thai they were unknown to these theologians, their existence should have been disconcerting to those who believed that such a thing should not or could not happen.

Abraham's three visitors at Mamre was a well-known subject in Byzantine icons, and visual representations of that scene are still widespread today, although usually interpreted only as a symbol of the Trinity and not as an actual visual presentation of it. The early fifteenth-century panel painting by Andrei Rub lev is the most famous of these representations (fig. 42), but there were earlier models, including a

number of twelfth-century Bible illuminations. According to tradition, a painting of this scene also hung in the southern aisle of the church Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, over a table made from a tree cut from the very grove at Mam re.16

Possibly the earliest known representation of the story occurs in the fourth-century among the frescoes of Rome's Via Latin a catacomb. This catacomb contains several other innovative narrative images, including Jacob's dream of the ladder and Jacob blessing Ephraim and Man ass eh. Above the image of Jacob's dream is a fresco showing a seated Abraham (calf at his side) greeting three men dressed in tunics, mantles, and sandals (fig. 43). We cannot be certain that this image is, in fact, any reference to the Trinity, but its proximity to the scene of Jacob's dream suggests that it might have been meant to represent a divine theophany. On the other band, given its placement with other "new" narrative scenes from the Old Testament, it may be merely a single image within a Genesis cycle. However, the similarity of the three visitors also suggests that lhe interpretation of the narrative as found in the documentary materials might have been incorporated into the iconography.

In addition to this possible symbolization of the Trinity in the iconography of Abraham's hospitality, we also have evidence of other early, but now lost, parallels. Eusebius of Caesarea mentions a drawing (graphe) set up at the traditional site of the visitation, a place honored by locals as a sacred place, where the tree (Eusebius calls it a terebinth, rather than an oak) can still be seen. And those who were entertained by Abraham are represented in the picture sitting one on each side of a central figure, "Our Lord and Savior" who surpasses them in honor and "thus in person from that time sowed the seeds of holiness among mortals, putting on a human form and shape, and revealed to the godly ancestor Abraham who he was and showed him the mind of his Fat h er"17 This descri ption actual I y com es in h is argumen 11 h at A Im i ghty

Fig 43. Abraham and h 5 three visitors.Via Latins Catacomb Rome (© The International Catacomb Society.PhcUo: Estelle Brettman).

Gcd could not have appeared, but only "our Lord and Savior* who could put on human shape and tbrm in order to reveal himself to Abraham and show forth "the mind of his Father/'13

The scene also appears in the mosaic cycle of biblical scenes of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome (ca, 435) (fig, 44). Here, the scene is divided into two registers (Abraham appears three times in the composition}. At the top of the panel, we see Abraham bowing before his three visitors and making a gesture of greeting. The three are dressed alike and have identical fates, but the central figure is distinguished from the other two by being surrounded by a mandarin (a full body halo similar to the almond-shaped frame of light around the image of Christ in the transfiguration). In addition, the central figure makes a gesture of speech and faces directly forward, while the other two are slightly turned in a quarter profile. Below and on the left we sec Sarah preparing food (three pyramid-shaped cakes) for the visitors while Abraham instructs her ("make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes," Gen 18:6).

Fig. i-l.The Hospita ity of Abraham, early 5th cer. c.e mosaic* Basilica of Santa f^lana Maggione. Ronre (Photo: ScaJa/Art ResoLince).

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