The Icon of the Holy Trinity
By: Vladimir Moss
In recent years, the icon of the Holy Trinity in which the Father is portrayed as an old man with white hair, the Son as a young man, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, has been characterized as “deception” and “cacodoxy” by some Orthodox writers, especially the Greek-American George Gabriel.
The arguments Gabriel brings forward are essentially three:-
1. It is impossible to see or portray the Divine nature. Only the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, can be portrayed on icons, for He took on visible, tangible flesh in His Incarnation. Therefore the portrayal of the Father, Who has not become incarnate, is forbidden and speedily leads to the heresy of the circumscribability of the Divinity.
2. The icon of the Holy Trinity in question is supposed to portray the Prophet Daniel’s vision of “The Ancient of Days”, the old man with white hair being a depiction of the figure called “The Ancient of Days” (Daniel 7). However, the Ancient of Days, according to the Tradition and hymnology of the Church, is Christ, not the Father. Therefore the icon is based on a false interpretation of the prophetic text.
3. The icon of the Holy Trinity in question is a western invention, and has been forbidden by the Councils of Moscow in 1666 and Constantinople in 1780. These councils are authentic witnesses of Holy Tradition. Therefore their decisions should be respected and the icon condemned.
In this article I propose to show that these arguments are false and should be rejected. In doing so I shall rely largely on the excellent work, The Holy Trinity in Orthodox Iconography, produced (in Greek) by Nativity skete, Katounakia, Mount Athos. The present article is essentially a synopsis of the main arguments of this work together with a few observations of my own.
*Let us take each of Gabriel’s arguments in turn.
1. Both Gabriel and his Orthodox opponents are agreed, in accordance with the unanimous Tradition of the Orthodox Church, that the Divine Nature cannot be portrayed in icons. Gabriel then proceeds to assume, without any good reason, that the portrayal of “the Ancient of Days” in the icon of the Holy Trinity is an attempt to portray the Divine Nature. This is false.
The icon is a portrayal, not of the Divine Nature of the Father, but of His Divine Person. Moreover, it depicts Him, not realistically, but symbolically, not as He really is, in His Divine Nature, which is forever unattainable and undepictable, but only as He appeared to the prophet in a symbolic form or image for the sake of our understanding. The Son really became a man, so the depiction of the Son as a man in icons is a realistic depiction. The Father never became a man, so the depiction of Him as a man in icons is a symbolic, not a realistic depiction. In exactly the same way, the Holy Spirit never became a dove, so the depiction of Him as a dove in icons is not a realistic, but a symbolic depiction of Him, being a depiction of Him as He appeared in a symbolic form or image to St. John the Forerunner in the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan.
Two critical distinctions are implicit here: (a) between nature and person, and (b) between the Divine Nature (or Essence) and Energies.
(a) Icons, as St. Theodore the Studite teaches are representations, not of natures, but of persons existing in natures. Act 6 of the Seventh Ecumenical Council states: “An icon is not like the original with respect to essence, but with respect to hypostasis”. Thus an icon of Christ is an image of a Divine Person in His human nature, which is visible to the bodily eye. The icons of the angels are images of the persons of the angels in their angelic nature, which is invisible to the bodily eye. Nevertheless, God has condescended to allow the prophets and the saints to see the angels in bodily form, and it is these visions that we depict in the icons of the angels.
(b) The distinction between the Divine Nature (or Essence) and Energies was clearly worked out by St. Gregory Palamas. Both the Nature and the Energies of God are common to all Three Persons. Only the Divine Nature is forever inaccessible to man (like the centre of the sun), while the Energies are God coming out of Himself, as it were, and making Himself communicable to men (like the rays of the sun).
The visions of God by the Old Testament Prophets are visions of the Divine Energies of God, not of His Essence. Thus St. Gregory Palamas, commenting on the Patriarch Jacob’s words: “I have seen God face to face [or person to person], and my soul has been saved”, writes: “Let [the cacodox] hear that Jacob saw the face of God, and not only was his life not taken away, but as he himself says, it was saved, in spite of the fact that God says: ‘None shall see My face and live’. Are there then two Gods, one having His face accessible to the vision of the saints, and the other having His face beyond all vision? Perish the impiety! The face of God which is seen is the Energy and Grace of God condescending to appear to those who are worthy; while the face of God that is never seen, which is beyond all appearance and vision let us call the Nature of God.”
Abraham’s vision at the oak of Mamre was likewise a vision of God, not in His Essence, but in His Energies. One or two Western Fathers (for example, St. Justin the Martyr) say that Abraham saw Christ and two angels. But the Greek Fathers and St. Augustine say that he saw the Holy Trinity in the form of three young men or angels. They all agree that Abraham saw God. Thus St. Gregory the Theologian says that “the great Patriarch saw God not as God but as a man”. Again St. John Chrysostom writes that God appeared to Abraham, but not with “the nature of a man or an angel”, but “in the form of a man”. And St. John of Damascus, the great defender of the icons, writes: “Abraham did not see the Nature of God, for no one has seen God at any time, but an icon of God, and falling down he venerated it.”
As the True Orthodox Fathers of Katounakia aptly put it: “There is no icon representing the Nature or Essence of God, but there is an icon of the ‘icon’ of God.” (p. 30).
2. The term “Ancient of Days”, like “God”, is applicable to all Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Therefore there is no contradiction between allowing that Christ can be called “the Ancient of Days”, as in the hymnology for the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord, and believing that “the Ancient of Days” in the vision of Daniel is God the Father. Hieromartyr Hippolytus of Rome (P.G. 10, 37), St. Athanasius the Great (V.E.P. 35, 121), St. John Chrysostom (P.G. 57, 133; E.P.E. 8, 640-2), St. Gregory Palamas (Homilies 14, E.P.E. 9, 390), St. Cyril of Alexandria (P.G. 70, 1461), St. Symeon of Thessalonica (Interpretation of the Sacred Symbol, p. 412), and St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite (The Rudder, Zakynthos, 1864, p. 320; Chicago, 1957, p. 420) all agree in identifying “the Ancient of Days” in the vision of Daniel with God the Father. They interpret the vision as portraying the Ascension of Christ (“the Son of Man”) to God the Father (“the Ancient of Days”), from Whom He receives the Kingdom and the Glory, together with the power to judge the living and the dead. Thus St. Cyril of Alexandria writes: “Behold, again Emmanuel is manifestly and clearly seen ascending to God the Father in heaven… The Son of Man has appeared in the flesh and reached the Ancient of Days, that is, He has ascended to the throne of His eternal Father and has been given honor and worship…” (Letter 55, in The Fathers of the Church, vol. 77, Washington: CUA Press, 1987, pp. 28, 29). There are some Holy Fathers speak in favour of the Ancient of Days being Christ in this vision (see The Lives of the Holy Prophets, Holy Apostles Convent, Buena Vista, 1998, pp. 407-408). Nevertheless, Gabriel’s interpretation of this vision as a prophecy of the Incarnation, “the Son of Man” being the human nature of Christ and “the Ancient of Days” His Divine Nature, is difficult to support in that the two figures in the vision clearly represent Persons, not Natures, and the attempt to represent the two natures of Christ in separation, as if they each had an independent enhypostatic existence, smacks of Nestorianism. That is why we prefer the interpretation that the Ancient of Days in this vision is the Father.
The fact that in Revelation 1 Christ is portrayed with white hair does not undermine this interpretation. Christ as an old man symbolically signifies His antiquity, the fact that He has existed from the beginning. Christ as a young man is a realistic image of His Incarnation as a man and a symbolic image of His agelessness as God. These images together teach us that Christ God passes unchanging through all ages from the beginning to the end. Revelation also portrays Christ as a lamb, which signifies that He was slain for the sins of the world. The Father and the Spirit also have different symbolical representations. The Father is represented visually as a man (in Isaiah, Daniel, Stephen’s vision in Acts and in Revelation) and aurally as a voice from heaven (at the Baptism of Christ and in John 12.28). Similarly the Spirit is represented as a bird (in Genesis 1 and at the Baptism of Christ) and as a wind and tongues of fire (at Pentecost).
3. Most of these scriptural icons of God passed into the artistic iconographical tradition of the Church from the beginning; only the iconographic representation of Christ as a lamb has been forbidden. Thus the appearance of the Trinity to Abraham is represented in the Via Latina catacombs in Rome (4th century), and the Father as an old man – in the Roman church of St. Maria Maggiore in Rome (c. 432). This constant tradition of the Church was confirmed by the Seventh Ecumenical Council and the Synodicon of Orthodoxy.
Thus the Seventh Ecumenical Council declares: “Eternal be the memory of those who know and accept and believe the visions of the prophets as the Divinity Himself shaped and impressed them, whatever the chorus of the prophets saw and narrated, and who hold to the written and unwritten tradition of the Apostles which was passed on to the Fathers, and on account of this make icons of the Holy things and honour them.” And again: “Anathema to those who do not accept the visions of the prophets and who reject the iconographies which have been seen by them (O wonder!) even before the Incarnation of the Word, but either speak empty words about having seen the unattainable and unseen Essence, or on the one hand pay heed to those who have seen these appearances of icons, types and forms of the truth, while on the other hand they cannot bear to have icons made of the Word become man and His sufferings on our behalf.” St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite, in his prolegomena to the Seventh Ecumenical Council, sums up the Council’s decrees on this subject as follows: “The present Council, in the letter which it sent to the Church of Alexandria, on the one hand blesses those who know and accept, and therefore make icons of and honour, the visions and theophanies of the Prophets, as God Himself shaped and impressed them on their minds. And on the other hand it anathematizes those who do not accept the iconographies of such visions before the incarnation of God the Word. It follows that the Beginningless Father must be represented in icons as He appeared to the Prophet Daniel, as the Ancient of Days.”
As regards the councils of 1666 and 1780, even if they were without reproach in every other respect, they cannot be accepted as expressing the Tradition of the Church if they contradict the decrees of the Seventh Ecumenical Council as well as the constant practice of the Church since Roman times.
However, there are other strong reasons for not accepting these councils. The Moscow council of 1666 was convened by the Tsar in order to defrock the righteous Patriarch Nikon; but only 16 years later, in 1682, this decision of the Moscow council was annulled by the Eastern Patriarchs. In any case, the prime force at the council, “Metropolitan” Paisios Ligarides, had already been defrocked by the Patriarch of Jerusalem for his crypto-papism. Thus far from expressing the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church against westernizing influences, the “Pan-Orthodox” council of Moscow actually represented a victory for westernism! Which is probably why Russia was flooded with the supposedly illegal icons of the Holy Trinity precisely after this council!
As for the Constantinopolitan council of 1780, it was convened by the same Patriarch, Sophronios II, who four years earlier had unjustly condemned Athanasios of Paros for following the laws of the Church in refusing to carry out memorials for the dead on Sunday instead of Saturday.
Another important historical point is the fact that the famous “Reigning” icon of the Mother of God, which went before the Russian armies fighting against Napoleon in 1812, and was miraculously discovered and renewed in Moscow at the precise moment that Tsar Nicolas II abdicated, on March 2, 1917, clearly portrays the Father as an old man at the top of the icon. Is it possible that God should have worked miracles through an icon that is heretical and blasphemous? Nor is this the only icon portraying the Father that has worked miracles. Another wonderworking icon of the Holy Trinity has been found in recent times in the possession of True Orthodox Christians in the region of Thessaloniki. This timing and location is significant, because perhaps the first opponent of the icon in the recent controversy, Dr. Alexander Kalomiros, was once in the True Orthodox Church in Thessaloniki, but left it and died while speaking against the holy icon.
In conclusion, let us consider an icon which everyone accepts to be canonical and in accordance with Orthodox Tradition – the icon of the Transfiguration of Christ. Who or what is represented in this icon? Clearly, the icon represents the Divine Person of Christ, who exists inseparably in His Divine and human natures.
Now the particular significance of this icon of Christ is that we see in it not only the visible part of His human nature – His body, but also the Divine Energies that flow from His Divine Essence – the Divine Light.
And yet, as St. Gregory Palamas writes, “the Light of the Transfiguration of the Lord has no beginning and no end; it remains uncircumscribed (in time and space) and imperceptible to the senses, although it was contemplated… But the disciples of the Lord passed here from the flesh into the spirit by a transmutation of their senses.” And again he writes: “The Divine Light is not material, there was nothing perceptible about the Light which illuminated the apostles on Mount Tabor.”
Now if we follow Gabriel’s argument through to its logical conclusion, iconographers who depict the Divine Light of the Transfiguration are falling into the heresy of circumscribing the uncircumscribable. For unlike the body of Christ, the Divine Light that flowed from His body is uncircumscribable and imperceptible to the senses. But this conclusion is obviously absurd and against Tradition.
The correct conclusion which needs to be drawn is that iconographers are permitted to depict, not only realities that are accessible to our bodily senses, such as the bodies of Christ and the saints, but also those invisible realities, both created and uncreated, circumscribable and uncircumscribable, that God makes visible to holy men by a mystical transmutation of their senses. These invisible realities which God has made visible include angels and the souls of men, and the Divine Light of God Himself. This is the Tradition of the Holy Church of Christ.
Also depictable are those symbolic manifestations of spiritual realities which were revealed in visions to the Prophets and Apostles by a cataphatic outpouring of the Energies of God, such as Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days, or the Holy Scriptures taken as a whole. For, as St. Nicodemos writes: “There is a third kind of picture (or icon), which is called a figurative or symbolic picture. Thus, for example, the mysteries of the grace of the Gospel and of the truth of the Gospel were originals, while the pictures thereof are the symbols consisting of the old Law and the Prophets.”
It remains forever true that the Divine Essence is absolutely unknowable and undepictable. But our zeal to guard this truth should not blind us to the reality of what holy men have seen and which the Holy Church therefore allows to be depicted in icons. For as the Lord says through the Prophet Hosea: “I will speak to the prophets, and I have multiplied visions, and in the hands of the prophets I was likened” (12.11).
June 6/19, 1993; revised on January 4/17, 2002.