Friday, November 11, 2016

Grasping At The Boundless

“Trinity of the Broken Body”
Robert Campin. 1410.
(Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Perhaps Robert Campin was the first. Perhaps he wasn't. Whoever it was, a precise formula for painting The Holy Trinity was concocted during the early Renaissance and passed around in rapid succession, influencing big names to crank out similar versions and inspiring others to do the same. And the recipe bothers me.

It is a bold move by anyone in Christendom to grasp at the boundlessness of our Almighty God. It is a vain attempt to wrap one’s brain around His omnipresence. Humans, however, have an annoying habit of wanting to put things in their pockets and bring them out at will. Even Christians become dumfounded at heavenly visions, and end up suggesting something as random as tents – as did disciples at the Transfiguration.

Whether commissioned to do so or of their own volition, artists attempted to visually capture the Holy Trinity in a similar manner. What is somewhat puzzling is that they often did so while forcing the vision apart from Scripture.
“The Holy Trinity”
Masaccio. 1425.
(Santa Maria Novella, Florence)

Long before Campin painted his “Trinity of the Broken Body,” iconographers used an image of three angels as a symbol of The Holy Trinity, pointing to Abraham’s visitors near the oaks of Mamre as recorded in Genesis 18. It was enough for Christians. For a while.

There were also depictions of Jesus' baptism, in which each Person of The Holy Trinity made Themself known. Apparently, that also wasn't enough.

The new formula called for specific elements: The crucified Christ being held by The Father, and the nearby Dove of the Holy Spirit. However, there are big problems with this formula that dance awfully close to heresy.

For beginners, Scripture is pretty clear in showing that The Father was not at the cross. Admittedly, saying as much ignores the very omnipresence of God. Admittedly, it smacks of heresy. Admittedly, it is impossible to reconcile the “is, but is not” of the thing, but when Christ cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” it is convincing that His Father was not there.
“Adoration of the Holy Trinity”
Albrecht Dürer. 1511.
(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

It can also be argued that an otherwise peculiar recording of meteorological conditions was unnecessary – unless it was pointing to something else. Aaron’s Blessing from The Lord carried the unusual line, “The Lord make his face to shine upon you.” The antithesis in its deepest form would cause “Darkness over the whole land.” Such was the case at Jesus’ crucifixion.  The Father very much turned His back on His Son.

Capturing the likeness of The Father is a major fail, anyway. It is simply dumb. The results always end up looking like an old guy, Father Frost, or something worse. Jesus Christ took on the flesh of man. The Father did not. Forcing the viewer to look on any depiction of The Father puts them in a difficult place and confines He who is infinite into a finite form.

“The Holy Trinity”
Lucas Cranach the Elder. 1515.
(Kunsthalle, Bremen, Germany)
Of course, it is also a bold move to single out The Persons as individuals of the whole, when They are so interwoven as to defy separation. It is only for the sake of human weakness that we speak thus.

Holy Scripture does not say where the other two persons of The Holy Trinity were during the crucifixion. Or does it? The Holy Spirit, while not descending as a dove, was at work in a convict dying next to Jesus, and The Holy Spirit was guiding the tongue of a Gentile centurion. “Surely this man was the Son of God.”

And where might The Father be if, in His omnipresence, He was not holding the cross of Christ? Perhaps He, in His grief for His Son and in His righteous anger toward Satan, was rending His clothes – the curtain of the Temple – and fuming that Satan is as good as dead.

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