Friday, September 17, 2010

Images of the Father

There is a post on New Liturgical Movement today about the question of Images of God the Father, something that I know has interested myself and some of my readers in the past.

The post concludes that images of the Father according to certain traditional models are okay, and while I agree in practice, I think the theory could use some clarification.

I wrote my own thoughts in the comments section there that I decided to expand a little as a post here:
Actually, I'm not sure an image of the Father is strictly speaking even possible, let alone "allowed."

The Son is both Image and Word. Not just in/because of His Incarnation, even, but because of His role as Eternal Logos (though, that's indeed why it was the Second Person who was the most appropriate one to incarnate). The Son reveals the Father even from eternity within the Trinity.

Now, that's not to say we can't have images that "represent" God the Father, in some sense. Obviously, even words are images. This is why it is not completely accurate to say that it is the Incarnation that allows for material portrayals of God, at least naturally speaking. The Old Law obviously had a super-added mandate not to make pictorial representations, but the difference between pictoral representation and verbal one of degree, not nature.

Even the written letters GOD or FATHER constitute an abstract material "image" too inasmuch as they are just shaped material ink on material paper or material carving in material stone or material pixels on a material screen (or vibration in the material air) which nevertheless represent that immaterial concept, that transcendent Being. If the Incarnation is what allows for material potrayals, that works "back in time" also, to even the allowance of imaging God as a name or word (spoken or written) in the Old Testament, though the fact that it was "only" word and not image allowed in the Old Testament is symbolically fitting considered relative to the Eternal Word's incarnation in visible human flesh.

Yet, in a certain sense, that's exactly why they are not "really" images of the Father (nor are pictures, which in a certain sense are just elaborate pictographs). The Son is really the only Image of the Father, the Word the only word that can convey Him. Any portrayal of the Father, any revelation of the Father (even the text-word "Father" in this very post) in the Son. Any image representing the existence of the Father is actually, strictly speaking, an image of the Son, just ontologically even, as the divine essence is inaccessible and unnameable. Only the Son represents the Father. Even when they both appear to be together in the same image, we have to see the figure representing the Father is in some sense "really" the Son re-duplicated.

This is also why, in the Holy Family, St Joseph fills the "first" position but is actually the third in precedent. Because whereas the incarnate Christ is His own image, and the Blessed Virgin (as Ecclesia) is truly the "Perfect Icon of the Holy Spirit" (even the "quasi-incarnation" as St Maximillian Kolbe said). But St Joseph is merely sort of a place-holder or space-filler for the First Person or Father role. Because really it is the Son who is the only true image or perfect icon of the Father. But since the Son also is already standing for Himself in that earthly triad, you need a third person in there to "hold the place of" the First, yet only ever imperfectly, and only ever as derivative or delegated from the Son.

The same is true for representations of "the Father" in paintings; any "image of the Father" is really more like a veil that covers the Father with the Son and so actually maintains His invisibility, an apophatic representation as it were. The depiction of the bearded old man is taken from the Ancient of Days in the book of Daniel. But in the East and many traditional patristic readings the Ancient of Days is interpreted as not the Father but the Son!

The image of the "Hospitality of Abraham" is likewise, in the East, not strictly speaking the Trinity Themselves appearing, but merely the three angels who appeared to Abraham (who, albeit, have a Trinitarian symbolism to them). The Holy Spirit should never be portrayed as man. Unlike the Father, the Son is not the Image of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit did not incarnate separately.

Likewise in this vein, also, it must be kept in mind that it is Mary-Eccle
sia who is the corresponding best Icon of the Holy Spirit, not some bird or flame (though one of those may hover over her as a reminder or indication of this relationship). A Madonna and Child (with the Father invisible) is, in fact, a Trinitarian icon, and a better one at that than any image with some bearded old man and a dove.


Curtis said...

I see no reason why the relation between the First and Second Person of the Trinity cannot be depicted as an old man and a young man, usually, by depicting Jesus as an 30-year-old adult and his Heavenly Father as 50-60 year old man. I've always understood such pictures as depicting their filial relationship, not depicting the person of the Father per se. After all, that relation (and the relation of the Father to us) is a real paternal relation, a fact that was revealed to us by God - a great mystery, yes, but one that we should be free to use our imagination to "flesh out" with prayers, stories, art, etc...

Interestingly, I remember a sermon by Augustine where he speculates that the Father of the Prodigal Son is, in fact, the whole Trinity. I think he even says that the two arms of the Father when he embraces his son symbolize the Son and Holy Ghost! I'll admit I'm a bit jealous of such an unfettered pious imagination!

Who Am I said...

I wrote a paper on Images of GOD The Father in Byzantine Art and have lately been considering working on one. Do you want me to pass it on to you ?

The book I used is FANTASTIC and really convinced me as to why the canons of Iconography are SSSOOO important.

Just let me know.

A Sinner said...

Sure, I'd be interested.