The Trinity is a Biblically based, theological foundation of Christianity that explains the nature of God taking the form of three independent beings but still existing as one God. For centuries people have tried to understand this concept that seems to be impossible yet confirmed by Scripture as truth. Due to its mysterious nature the desire to somehow represent this relationship has led to much artwork that depicts the three parts as one whole. Trinitarian artwork does a significant job of portraying the relationship between the three parts of the Trinity through its use of symbols and gestures.
In order to best understand Trinitarian artwork, one must understand the symbols that are used as representations of the Trinity. The three main symbols of this union are the use of triangular objects or groupings of three objects, the depiction of the three parts as Father being hands typically, Son on a cross, and Holy Spirit as a dove, and the use of hand gestures. Through the use of these symbols certain pieces of art take on a new form with profound meanings.
The most common and easily understood representation of the Trinity is the use of triangles or groupings of three objects. Because the Trinity actually means “the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three persons in one Godhead according to Christian dogma…from Latin trinus meaning threefold” (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary). It is inherent that due to the nature of the word “trinity” the depiction of this union would be centered around the number three. Associated with this number, and thus the Trinity, is the use of triangles. Many altarpieces have a triangular top that represents the Trinity and also points the gaze of the viewer to the heavens. The use of groupings of three objects also allows the viewer to understand that the Trinity exists as one despite the three different parts. Each part of the grouping holds a different meaning but together they complete the significance of the whole picture. This aspect of Trinitarian art truly provides the basis for understanding just how the Trinity works within Christian dogma.
Another way to depict the Trinity is by portraying each part as separate beings with the use of their individual symbols. Typically the Father is represented as two hands reaching down from the top of the painting, with no connection to a body. The symbolism here is based on the idea that the hand of God is in all things, especially in the sacrifice of His perfect son in order to bring salvation to the world (NIV, John 3.6). By including this symbol in paintings the artist is implying that God serves as the controller of all things. It is obvious that this symbol has a significant meaning greater than the idea of simply portraying hands. God, as the Father and creator, has hands that have shaped the world and continue to influence life. By representing Him as hands, it becomes clear that God has His hand in the world as a means of guiding and directing.
Christ, the Son in the Trinity, can be portrayed in a variety of different ways but the most common is the depiction of Him as the sacrificial servant sent to die on the cross. Christ is often seen as being on the cross in order to demonstrate His willingness to die for the sins of the world and to set the world free (NIV, Galatians 5:1). By showing Christ on a cross the artist is not only portraying His ultimate act of love and redemption, but it also shows His humanness. An important part of understanding the Trinity is understanding that Christ is the incarnate of God the Father. Christ’s humanness is seen in His death on the cross. He did in fact die, which is an act of humanity, and more than that it shows that He felt pain. Often Christ has a grimacing look on His face showing just how painful His current situation is. The representation of Christ as a man on a cross goes farther than a simple depiction of an act of love and forgiveness, it also demonstrates the very nature of Christ as both divine and human.
The third part of the Trinity is the Holy Spirit. The Holy spirit is often overlooked within the Trinity because it is not typically depicted as a human form instead it is shown as a dove. But this symbol is far more important than many people would assume as they view a piece of artwork. The dove is used in the Bible as a representation of God’s spirit, later to be known as the Holy Spirit (NIV, Matthew 3:16). By understanding that the dove represents the Holy Spirit not only do viewers have the opportunity to see the Trinity in its entirety, but it also allows them to understand other biblical references to doves more clearly. In the story of Noah’s ark Noah sends out a dove to see if the waters have been dried up and it is safe to go out onto the land or not (NIV, Genesis 8:8). By understanding that the dove is used as a representation of the Holy Spirit, then this story becomes even more significant as it demonstrates that God never left Noah’s side. The different symbols associated to the three beings of the Trinity help provide an understand of God’s nature and His working in the world.
While the depiction of the three parts of the Trinity based on their individual symbols is commonly used in Trinitarian art, another way to demonstrate the Trinity is by using hand gestures. In artwork where Christ is depicted He is often doing something significant with His hands, and frequently these gestures are an indication of the Trinity. There are two main hand gestures done by Christ to demonstrate the Trinity. When Christ’s hand is making the gesture for “3” by touching his index finger to his thumb, leaving three fingers facing upward, He is implying the Trinity. The two fingers that are touching imply His nature as being both human and divine while the three fingers that are being held up demonstrate the Trinity. By seeing this gesture in artwork one is able to identify the painting or mosaic as being Trinitarian in nature.
The second gesture is very similar to the first. Instead of the thumb and index finger touching, in this gesture His ring finger is touching His thumb. Again the two touching fingers represent the dual nature of Christ and the three remaining up demonstrate the three parts of the Trinity. The difference between this gesture and that of the other gesture is that the latter can be used to also indicate a sign of benediction. This is evident in the painting entitled The Virgin and Child, by an unknown artist. Within this painting the child, Jesus, is making this gesture and it has been interpreted to mean the Trinity as well as a sign of benediction. Considering this dual meaning, it becomes clear that the trinity as well as Christ’s dual nature is often seen not only as a sign of God’s nature but also implies a blessing. By understanding this interpretation, Trinitarian art becomes much more meaningful and profound.
In her article entitled, “Symbols in Art” , Colleen Carroll explains, “Symbols can represent ideas, concepts, beliefs doctrines and feelings. Symbols can have powerful meaning and evoke strong emotion, such as the crucifix in Christianity or the Star of David in Judaism.” (Arts and Activities, 2006-07) This statement could not be more true, and while it seems to be simple, what it explains is much more complex. The symbols that artists use in their paintings are not random or by chance, each one represents something significant that adds to the meaning of the painting. Carroll argues, “For a symbol to have meaning, it's important to understand what it represents.” Without a clear understanding of what a symbol represents, it is impossible to truly comprehend the painting or piece of art. This holds true in Trinitarian art. By understand the symbols used in this genre it is easy to see their significance.
Trinitarian art, like all artwork, is filled with meanings that are deeper than what is seen on the canvas. In order to truly grasp the meaning behind Trinitarian art it is necessary to understand the symbols and their connections to the Trinity. The Trinity is very complex and the use of art in representing the three parts can be used as a tool to better understanding such a complex doctrine of Christianity. Artwork is used to express emotions and feelings of the artist, but it is also used to inform and instruct. Trinitarian artwork does just that, it aides in the understanding of a belief in Christianity that is hard to understand because of our humanness.
The symbols of Trinitarian art did not come into being just by chance, instead they hold significance in history and most notably in Scripture. The scriptural basis for the symbols cannot be overlooked and in fact should be used in gaining a more well-rounded understanding of the Trinity as a whole.
The Trinity is complex and confusing, but with the use of artwork that displays this relationship it is easier to understand, at least to a larger degree than before, what exactly the Trinity is and its place in Christian doctrine. Through symbols, Trinitarian art is able to explain things that may not otherwise be explainable. It is only through an understanding of these symbols, however, that one is able to truly know Trinitarian art.
Carroll, Colleen. "Symbols in Art." Arts and Activities. Sep. 2006: 27-8. Print.
New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996. http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/italian-umbrian- the-virgin-and-child.
"The Virgin and Child." The National Gallery. The National Gallery of London, n.d. Web. 29 Nov 2010.
"Trinity." Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, 2010. Web. 29 Nov 2010. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/trinity.