Letter from a Member of the Ministry Team. Iffley Parish Magazine, June 2020
When I was seven years old my parents moved our family to a newly incorporated town, sandwiched between two older towns, established in the late 1800’s. Simultaneously with the move we became one of the founding families of a new Lutheran Church called ‘Trinity’. For fifteen years I entered the doors of the church always passing the plaque with the name and the founding date on the near outside wall. The word trinity and the idea of the Trinity was always there in my conscious and sub-conscious mind. As a child I accepted the concept and the triune God without question. It seemed perfectly understandable. We were shown triangles and interlocking circles. I didn’t ask too many questions. I have a few questions now and yet, still, not too many. I accept the mystery that lives on in faith.
Like many in these past few months I have looked to the gifts in life that make me happy, especially the small garden we have, talking to friends and family and looking back at some of the beautiful paintings/frescoes I’ve seen over the years in churches and art galleries. The Triune God is, of course, a prevalent subject.
The fresco of the ‘Trinity’ painted by Masaccio in the first quarter of the 15thCentury and located on the left aisle wall in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence is one of the most beautiful in my mind. The use of perspective in the composition is in no doubt inspired by Brunelleschi and was ground-breaking in its time. The technique employed asks the onlooker to enter the place of Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross. As Christ is supported by his father, the Holy Spirit as a dove hovers between the two thereby connecting all three. We stand or kneel with Mary and John and are able to look directly upon the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The work is sublime, mysterious and holy.
Across the city of Florence in another religious house is the convent of San Marco. Many of you will know the cell paintings within the convent executed towards the middle of the 15thCentury. In Cell 24 a fresco attributed to Zanobi Strozzi and partially to Fra Angelico depicts the baptism of Christ. All of the frescoes are simple in their execution, but this particular painting is more descriptive and shows a winding Jordan river disappearing into a distant landscape of hills. Jesus stands at the front, John to the side pouring water over Christ’s head. Above the hills a huge, white, rose-like circular cloud pulses with the voice of the father and from the cloud the Holy Spirit, again as a dove, emanates. To view it from the doorway of a small monastic cell increases the effect it has on the one contemplating it. It is a simple depiction of the Trinity but brings together the 3 persons of God at one pivotal moment in the story of salvation. It is reverent and full of conviction.
In the Ethiopian city of Gondar one finds the 17th Century church of Däbrä Berhan Sellassie (restored in the late 19th Century). Here the depiction of the Trinity, in iconic Second Gondarine form, is completely different. One finds 3 identical men with long white hair and beards, each holding an egg. Three separate men and yet all alike. We all understand the egg is composed of a yolk, albumen and a shell and so this symbol asks the believer to envisage the unique godhead of Father, Son and Spirit, the same on the outside but different within. The beauty of this depiction of the Trinity is in its situation. The painting is cornered by symbols of the four Apostles and situated above a painting of the Crucifixion. The Crucifixion is above another painting of a skull and bones representing Adam and below, two doors lead into the Holy of Holies. Within the small church one is surrounded by angels and characters both biblical and apocryphal on all of the walls and ceiling. The overall feeling though comes from the large painting of the Trinity presiding and protecting all of God’s creation – it is breath taking and testifies to a strong Christian belief.
Sitting on a cabinet in my own living room is a hand-painted icon I bought from a street vendor in 1990 while in Moscow. This depiction of the Trinity is much more traditional. If I look towards the wooden block, on the left Jesus sits holding the Book of Life. On the right sits his Father who raises his left hand in blessing. Both are resting their hands on the same celestial globe topped by a cross. The Holy Ghost hovers between them as a dove. The dove is backed by 2 pillow-like haloes and one corner of each touches the haloes of Christ and his Father even as they lightly touch their knees together thereby forming an ellipse. The three entities become one. As a piece of artwork it isn’t very good but there is a very special aspect to the painting. Jesus looks out at us but the Father looks towards his ‘beloved son in whom he is well pleased’.
The mystery of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, will always be with us, in words, in visual representations and as the core of our Christian faith.
(You can google images of all 3 of the paintings mentioned. Cell 24 requires a bit of perseverance.)
Illustration: Masaccio’s Trinity. Photo by Sailko, published under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
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