Should We Paint God the Father?

17 09 2010

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 the fact that my icon painting training led me to believe that it was wrong.  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 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 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, his Crowning of the Virgin by the Trinity is to the right. I wasn’t too worried about Blake, an eccentric non-Catholic, but Michelangelo and Velazquez?

I was approached recently 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, which we are all familiar with is the Ancient of Days in the book of Daniel (7:9, 13, 22). 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 represent the three persons of the Trinity). Right is a Greek Orthodox New Testament Trinity from the ceiling of the entrance Vatopedion Monastery at Agion Oros (Mount Athos), Greece. 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 [fourteenth, not sixteenth!] in 1745 pronounced this, though beyond a Wikipedia reference I have not been able to validate this). It also allows for the interpretation of the Ancient of Days as Christ. The Russian Orthodox Church, since the synod of Moscow in 1667 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 decision of the 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 present 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. A 16th century German version is shown left. This tradition goes right back the Medieval times in the Western Church and we have this continued even into the 20th century with Eric Gill in England doing woodcut of this image in a modern gothic style.

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

It is worth pointing out also, 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 point).

Below: an early gothic Mercy Throne; a 20th century version by the Englishman, Eric Gill; an early gothic pieta in which God the Father supports the son; a baroque Mercy Throne by Ribera, 17th century; and William Blake’s Ancient of Days.




9 responses

21 09 2010
jim janknegt

I recently did a painting of God as creator of heaven and earth. I depicted the Trinity with God the Father in the traditional, ancient of days look. I think as long as one is respectful of the tradition it is OK.

25 09 2010

I’m curious what you think of the tradition of portraying God the Father identically to God the Son. You can see an example here:

Heures d'Isabeau de Roubaix p

I have seen variants where the Father is not even differentiated by the tiara, and it’s difficult to tell them apart. From what I can tell, this tradition sprang out of the scriptural passage you quoted above, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” I’ve only seen this depiction in illuminated manuscripts, but I haven’t done any great research on it.

25 09 2010

I think the quotation you give is the source. The Ghent altarpiece has an image of God with a tiara, but it is often described by commentators as being unclear as to whether or not it is God the Father or the Son

27 09 2010
Cathey R. Bayless

I’ve seen lots of icons of The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit. They all look like three young men sitting around a table on which is the Eucharist. I really like those images; they were my favorite icons when I first started studying them.

27 09 2010

I would love to see some examples – I wonder though, are you referring to the Hospitality of Abraham? The three figures are the three strangers and are angels, who traditionally represent the three persons of the Trinity.

30 09 2010

Great article. Thanks!

24 10 2010
Lyne Fournier

“Humanity is like one body, and we are part of that body.”

29 11 2010
Michael Rizzio

Great post and site. Concerning God the Father I like to ponder Revelation 22 and try to come to an understanding what St. John saw (knowing that I never will). There is a Throne (A great white throne?); A stream (crystal clear, refreshingly blue?); The Lamb (looking slain and red); There are fruit trees (with bright green leaves).

I am left with the distinct impression that God witnessed to His pure unapproachable Light and the threeness of his persons with the optical colors which are the basis of our modern communications culture—R-G-B. An order for God seems to be B for the Father, R for the Son and G for the Holy Spirit. It is interesting to note that he cones of our eyes are hardwired to receive these three color frequencies and to “create all the rest from” them. This is exactly what computer screens and TVs do in reverse. IMHO the cathode ray tube is very Catholic (pun intended.)

As for the face of God the Father, as long as it looks like the Son, I am fine with our attempts to put a face on the unfacable (is that a word?)

29 11 2010

Quite apart from an interpretation of Revelation, I had always felt that three is a balanced number for composition in art. So proportion is always expressed in threes (going back to the Greeks and Romans and incorporating that into Christian thinking, Boethius). I have found that colours work best in threes also. I can’t point to a bibilical reference, only my sense of what is balanced when you see it in decoration or a painting. Historically these were R G B, but in fact doesn’t modern physics tell us that the three are magenta, cyan and yellow. From these you can obtain all other colours including RGB

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