J.P. Sonnen – Global Pilgrim

Depicting the Trinity's theology: an artistic challenge

Voices Nov. 22, 2017

Guido Reni's depiction of the Holy Trinity is seen in the church of the Most Holy Trinity of the Pilgrims (Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini) in the historic centre of Rome. (J.P. Sonnen / OC-Travel / The B.C. Catholic)

One of the most fascinating subjects for theology and art is that of the Holy Trinity. Both disciplines allow us to penetrate, with the deepest reverence, the sanctuary of the divine.

Theology of the Trinity

The most profound mystery of God is the Trinity. Faith tells us there is one God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – three distinct persons in one and the same unity of nature.

Between these distinct persons, there is neither superiority nor inferiority. These divine persons are equal in power, wisdom and goodness, because all three equally possess, in an indivisible manner, one and the same divine nature with all its infinite perfection. Such is a perfect subject for contemplation, discussion, and art.

The Father proceeds from none; he is the principle without principle, the first principle of all intimate life in God, the first origin of all the ineffable communications of the Trinity. 

The Father, knowing himself, begets by an infinite word a Son only-begotten and perfect, to whom he communicates all that he is, except the personal property of being the Father.

The Son is equal in all things to the Father. He is the adequate expression and the perfect image of the Father. He possesses with the Father the same divine nature. The Father and the Son give themselves, the one to the other, with a perfect love.

And it is from this gift of love from the Father to the Son, and from the Son to the Father, that proceeds, in a mysterious manner, the Holy Spirit, the final term of the divine communications in the blessed Trinity.

Artistic Rendering of the Trinity

Deeply moved by the mystery of the Trinity, Christian artists have symbolized this truth in many ways over the centuries. 

In the earliest years of Christianity, the first artists were occupied principally with the decorations of the tombs of the catacombs. The prevailing theme of their art was God’s providence and the immortality of the soul.

Therefore, the earliest Christian artists did not attempt to portray the Trinity; at least, no examples of this subject have survived from the earliest age of the catacombs. This is most likely because this subject was not under question or attack.

However, the earliest artistic renditions of the Trinity are symbolic. Paulinus of Nola, a third-century poet-saint, describes one which shows the Father as a voice from heaven, Christ as a lamb, and the Holy Spirit as a dove.

Early artists looked to the Scriptures and tradition, beginning with the Old Testament. Although the Bible identifies only one of Abraham’s visitors as the Lord (Gn 18:1), many of the early Fathers believed that the two companions with him represented the Son and the Holy Spirit – that the three visitors were a figure of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, which was to be revealed later in the New Testament.

Fourth-century examples of this subject in the Basilica of St. Mary Major and the Lateran in Rome are considered by some archeologists to be the earliest representations of the three divine persons in human form. 

The triangle, with three equal sides forming a unity, was also in early use as a symbol. Other geometrical symbols, such as three interlinked circles and the triskelion, a triple spiral exhibiting rotational symmetry, were commonly used in decoration in the late Middle Ages.

Early in the 10th century the three divine persons can be seen depicted in human form, seated side by side, this time with traditional symbols of their attributes: the Father holding an orb, the Son a cross, the Holy Ghost depicted as a dove or even a book. To stress the unity of the three persons, it was customary to show a single mantle covering all three.

A New Rendition is Born

Meanwhile, the early Gothic artists, painters of northern Italy and Germany, had found another way of depicting the Trinity – the Son shown on the cross, with the transverse beam supported by outstretched arms of the Father, and the Holy Spirit, as a dove, pictured descending at the top of the cross.

Albrecht Dürer, a German painter of the Renaissance, painted the famous Adoration of the Trinity, which is a modification of this form. Found today in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, it depicts the dove above the head of the Father. In another variation, the dead Christ is seen lying in the arms of the Father, with the instruments of the passion beside him.

The form of representation now considered standard or typical was established in the Baroque period (after 1550): this is the horizontal composition, with the Father and Son side by side and the dove between them. 

Guido Reni’s Trinity in Rome

In Rome perhaps the most popular and effulgent rendition of the Holy Trinity is from Guido Reni. Reni, who was the most famous Italian artist of his time, was a favourite high-Baroque painter from Bologna whose eclectic classicism became widely influential on later Baroque. 

His monumental oil on canvas work – which many seek out in Rome – is  located in the church of the Most Holy Trinity of the Pilgrims (Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini) in the historic centre of Rome (near the Ponte Sisto and the Palazzo Spada/Piazza Farnese). 

The work, dating from 1625, was commissioned by Ludovico Cardinal Ludovisi, nephew of Pope Gregory XV. It is located behind the main altar in the centre of the sanctuary. Recently the electric lighting was modernized and restored, offering further illumination. 

A fascinating vertical image, the very large painting depicts a new look for the Trinity, with two separate while united registers or sections, upper and lower, uniting heaven and earth.

In the upper is depicted heaven. The Father, an elderly bearded man with outstretched hands, is enthroned in the heavens in a radiant blaze of light, surrounded by diminutive angels (which were often introduced decoratively in Renaissance painting). 

Behind his head is a tri-radiant halo, a triangle, the most ancient and most familiar symbol of the Trinity. The Father is dressed as a prelate, with a damask cope unfurled in the wind, connected on his breast with a decorative morse. He is further vested in a magnificent linen alb, depicted in bright white. 

The Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, flutters toward the congregation in front of the Father, above the head of Christ. All of the objects are in mid-motion, a common Baroque expression.

In the lower section is depicted the crucifixion, a real event in this world. Christ is depicted just moments after he had expired on the cross, the completion of the consummation of his sacrifice. His body, although deceased, glows in a post-mortem white. 

Two small cherubs support the cross, one looking down and one looking up, uniting this world and the next, the present, past, and future. Meanwhile, two larger angels kneel in adoration, doing the same, uniting the sacrifice of the cross across time and space.

Language of Art and Body

The language of the art is reflected in the language of the body and soul. 

According to the order indicated by the Sign of the Cross and by the baptismal formula itself given to us by Christ, Christians pray by invoking the Father and then the Son and the Holy Spirit. 

This profession of the divinity of the Trinity – three divine persons in one God – is a reflection of the fullness of divine revelation on earth. It immediately decides the soul’s attitude, one of humble adoration. 

Such is the language of revelation reflected in art. Human persons could not have attained to this knowledge without the teaching authority of the Church, unless it had been unveiled for mankind by the divine interpreter of the law, Christ himself. 

Christ has willed, for the exercise of our faith and the joy of our souls, to give us this knowledge by revelation, depicted through art.

Artistic renditions of the Blessed Trinity give to the faithful a glimpse of life in eternity, when the dead who are saved contemplate God without end. The Trinity is essential to infinite life; it is natural to the divine being. 

O God of incommensurable mystery, we adore thee, one in three!

J.P. Sonnen is a tour operator and history docent with Vancouver-based Orbis Catholicus Travel.