The unimaginability of God

In my wanderings, I recently encountered a very lovely Romanesque crucifix, pictured below in an image from Tripadvisor.

cattedrale-di-sant-eusebio

I prayed in front of that image of my Saviour from ca. 1000. How could I not? I’m fond of Romanesque art.

The next day I encountered a Renaissance fresco of the Most Holy Trinity, not unlike this one:

Luca_Rossetti_Trinità_Chiesa_San_Gaudenzio_Ivrea

Committed as I am to the Ecumenical Councils, I believe that the logic of the Incarnation makes the first image acceptable, but the logic of the Trinity and the logic of Deuteronomy 4 preclude the second. As 1 John 4:12 says, ‘No one has seen God.’ If the subject of images of the Trinity interests you, I recommend Matt Milliner’s lecture ‘Visual Heresy: Imaging God the Father in the History of Art‘ as well as the chapter on the subject in Sarah Coakley’s book God, Sexuality, and the Self.

God is not a being among beings, despite what philosophers since the 13th century have been trying to tell us. He is not simply a god-pigeon to us pigeons. He is utterly unlike us. God is not a man. God is Other. God is holy, and as such, wholly other. Thus, we aren’t authorised to make images of God the Father or the Holy Trinity.

People have long had difficulty with this, of course. In late fourth-century Egypt, there was an Anthropomorphite Controversy. St John Cassian tells us that when one of the desert Abbas (one Serapion, I think) was told that he was not allowed to imagine God in the image of a man, he declared in despair, ‘They have taken away my God, and I do not know what to do.’

William of St Thierry (1085-1148), in the aforementioned meditation, writes:

when I fix my inward gaze full upon him to whom I turn for light, to whom I offer worship or entreaty: it is God as Trinity who comes to meet me, a truth which the Catholic faith, bred in my bones, instilled by practice, commended by yourself and by your teachers, presents to me. But my soul, which must always visualize, perceives this given truth in such a way that it foolishly fancies number to reside in the simple being of the Godhead, which is beyond all number, and which itself made all that is by number and measure and weight. In this way it allots to each Person of the Trinity as it were his individual place and, praying to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, pictures itself as passing from the one to the ther through the third. And thus the mind, baffled by the one, is diffracted among the three, as though there were three bodies that must be differentiated or united. (trans. P. Matarasso, The Cisercian World, p. 113)

I find that crucifixes have helped me in my devotions (my Reformed friends will disagree with my subjective experience, of course!) — carved ones as well as painted ones as well as cast metal as above. They serve as visual reminders of that His precious death that wrought life for me. They can fill me with joy for salvation or compunction for sin.

Images of the Trinity simply annoy me.

The reduction of the Trinity into an old guy, a young guy, and a dove is the most absurd idea in the world. Now, I know that no crucifix can show the glory of Christ Our God — but the actual crucifixion didn’t, either. Not supernaturally. So that’s my out. (Besides, I always have Fra Angelico.) As Kierkegaard said (I paraphrase), to gain the full import of the Incarnation, you must point to a man in a crowd and say, ‘That is God.’ That is the visual ordinariness of Christ Incarnate.

The Trinity is unimaginable. There is no visual ordinariness of that which is beyond images.

The use of equivocal language about God that enables artists to produce such blasphemous images on church ceilings means that we have an impoverished view of God. The circumscribability of these images is wrong. The visible divisions of the Persons is wrong. We start to think of God as a man, only bigger. As I say, a god-pigeon amongst us pigeons. Transcendence has been compromised and needs to be rediscovered.

It is central to theology.

To quote another Cistercian from the same book as William of St Thierry, Blessed Amedeus of Lausanne (d. 1159) writes:

What part is the finite of the infinite, the measurable of the immeasurable, the moment of eternity? As the result of what multiplication or addition will the creature be comparable to the creator? If you were to project thousands times thousands to infinity, you wouldhave laboured in vain, and not in the remotest degree could you compare human knowledge to the wisdom of God. Hence, if God is contemplated in his essence, the substance of man will not be found … (Fourth Homily on Mary, the Virgin Mother, p. 142)

When people become disillusioned with the shallow devotionals we thrust at them, or when people are dissatisfied at never going beyond ‘Justification by faith’ or ‘substitionary atonement’ Sunday after Sunday, or they tire of Christian rock, what will they find? Will they find a circumscribed Trinity of heresy, or a God who died for them on the Cross?

The Great Tradition has much to offer, including the riches of Trinitarian theology. Let us not allow bad images and falsely equivocal language ruin that.

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5 thoughts on “The unimaginability of God

  1. I understand that the invisible God cannot be portrayed. However Jesus gives us parables where human fathers represent the Heavenly Father. We know that God is invisible but the invisible God became visible and used the visible world to tell us something about God.

    • You are, of course, correct. 🙂 I would be okay with illustrations of parables, I guess. But not these enthronement scenes of the Trinity. Neither with monstrous Trinities nor Gnadenstuhlen. But yes, just as we can see the three at Mamre with Abraham and catch a glimpse of God, so in the parables we can also catch glimpses.

  2. Proof of a great post. I’m still thinking about it. I don’t know whether or not I’m OK with images of the Trinity. Part of me feels like it is unacceptable, but then I am reminded of the Nicene Creed. When we recite the Creed are we not attempting to “depict” the Trinity in some way? Is this substantially different from a painting? Depictions of the Trinity can definitely be off-putting. I personally don’t understand why the Spirit should be depicted as a dove.

  3. […] The logic of icons of Our Lord is simple. God the Word became Incarnate as a real, flesh and blood human being, possessing a true human nature and existing as a real, single person. This He did for our salvation. The Apostles saw him and touched him. If they had wanted to, they could have painted him. If there had been cameras, they could have photographed him. Jesus was real, not fake. There is no space for docetism in orthodox Christianity. Therefore, the teaching of Deuteronomy 4, that the Israelites could not make images of God because they had not seen him, no longer holds for God the Word Incarnate, although it still counts for God the Father and the Trinity as a whole, as I have discussed. […]

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