Friday, October 5, 2018

Symbols for the Divinely Baffling


Copyright © Edward Riojas

This is a new one on me. Apparently, the fleur-de-lis can be used as a symbol for the Holy Trinity. Frankly, I would avoid using it that application because the stylized lily overshadows every other application in its role as a symbol for the Virgin Mary. Excepting, perhaps, the Boy Scouts of America, or whatever they're now calling themselves.

Besides, there are plenty of other symbols used to identify the Holy Trinity. Most of the readily identifiable ones make use of triangles and circles and goofy triquetra shapes that are usually interwoven as inseparable knots. It all makes sense. Sort of. The Three-in-One thing is understandable, but not really. When it takes a lengthy Athanasian Creed to state the case -- which still somehow falls short -- it becomes evident the mystery of the Holy Trinity must be understood with a child-like faith, or else our heads will implode.
Detail of illumination from the
"Summa Vitiorium" by
William Peraldus, showing a
version of the Trinitarian Shield.
(unknown illuminator)
c. 1260. (British Library, London)

One symbol of the Holy Trinity has strong creedal flavors. The Trinitarian “shield” states in Latin, English, or other languages that the Son IS God, The Father IS God, The Holy Spirit IS God, but the Son IS NOT the Father, etc.

At least two other plants beside the fleur de lis have also been used to symbolize the Holy Trinity. I’m not quite sure of the metaphorical link, but the anemone flower was used by the early Church to identify the Trinity.

A better visual symbol is the shamrock, or three-leafed clover. St. Patrick is said to have used the simple plant to explain the Holy Trinity, hence its close association with Ireland. (At this point, please refrain from suggesting four-leafed clovers are totally Irish. They aren’t. If you insist upon it, someone might have to clean your clock with a shillelagh.)

One of the earliest symbols is also a slightly unexpected one. Orthodox iconography uses three Angels to represent the Holy Trinity. They are most often shown eating at a table. The reference is, of course, to Genesis 18, in which Abraham is visited by three men. They speak, however, as one, and as the Lord. During the visit, Abraham prepares a meal for them, and so they eat. It may seem odd that iconography depicts the three men as angels, complete with wings. Perhaps the tradition gives a strong nod to Hebrews 13:2, in which the idea of “entertaining angels unawares” is put before the Jewish audience.
Icon of the Holy Trinity.
Andrei Rublev. c. 1405.
(Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

As with many Christian symbols, meaning and intent can only go so far. We needn’t feel, however, that symbols are completely useless in their insufficiency. Christ Himself used word pictures, in the form of parables, to describe for us those heavenly things which defy earthly understanding. So it is with symbols of the Holy Trinity.

1 comment:

  1. Agreed. The fleur-de-lis is too bogged down with other meanings... even the city of Saint Louis, MO, uses it in its flag...