May or May not God the Father Be Depicted in Orthodox Iconography?

Read through any collection of Gary Larson’s The Far Side cartoons, and you will doubtless come across a cartoon image of God as an old man, usually gigantic in proportion and surrounded by the clouds of “heaven.”  This kind of cartoon image has become the popular depiction of God within our popular culture, from the Sunday morning funny papers to popular films such as Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail.  Perhaps drawing inspiration from Michelangelo’s famous painting of the Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, the image of God as an old man has been indelibly imprinted upon the consciousness of Western society. An interesting by-product of this sort of depiction of God is the inclusion of Jesus alongside him, making two figures, Jesus and his Father.
Most Orthodox Christians are aware of the Church’s prohibition of any depiction of God the Father. The 1667 Synod of Moscow canonically forbade the depiction of God the Father in icons, though this canonical decision has not always been obeyed. Icons of an “Old Man” figure called “Lord Sabaoth” and “Ancient of Days” are often claimed to be images of the Father and often claimed to be something else. To further complicate matters, St. Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity depicts the three Persons of the Holy Trinity in angelic form. What then are the theological principles that prevent us from depicting the Father in iconography, and in what particular ways can He be depicted if at all?
It is commonly said that the Father cannot be depicted in icons, because the Father is invisible while the Son is incarnate and visible, but is this the reason? It cannot be entirely so, for we depict invisible, spiritual beings all the time such as the angelic hosts. Orthodox hymnography regularly addresses the angels as “the bodiless powers,” attesting to the fact that they are pure spirit, pure nous, or pure energy. Nevertheless, we depict them in human form. Virtually every Orthodox temple will have images of the Archangels in this
fashion. So then, the prohibition of depicting the Father does not stem merely from His invisible nature. Rather, the reason is far more theologically significant than mere visibility or invisibility.
To understand this, we must introduce the concept of iconicity, which is the ability of a thing to be imaged, that is to say, the possibility of a thing to have a thought-image or idealization. For example, I may stroll through a garden and see a beautiful flower. If I were then to sit down at an easel with a brush and palette, I can imagine an idealization of that beautiful flower and paint its image on the canvas. A beautifully painted image of a flower iconizes the particular flower that I saw in the garden, and it now gains the ability to inspire a sense of beauty in those who look at it as the particular flower inspired me as I strolled through the garden. The particular flower in the garden can be said to have a certain iconicity, which is actualized by the act of painting, the creation of the image.
The human person also has iconicity. Throughout history, the ideal human form has been painted and sculpted in a variety of ways, from Greek sculpture of the Olympian gods to modern comic book heroes with their powerful musculature. When we see an image of Superman, we see and are inspired by an icon of the ideal man (even though, and perhaps because he is an alien). All artistic images to one degree or another are iconizing, in that they portray an idealization of a thought-image about a particular thing.
The hypostatic icon
So then, when we speak about God or specifically about the hypostasis of the Father, in what way does He have iconicity? Orthodox theology of the Holy Trinity has long taught that God’s own thought-image of Himself, His own perception of Himself, His self-consciousness as it were, is realized in another hypostasis, the hypostasis of the Son. This is to say that the iconicity of the Father is realized by the Son. The only image of the Father that is possible is the very hypostasis of the Son. To put it another way, the Son is the natural
image of the Father, as Jesus himself said to Philip, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9).
It can be said then that it is the property of the Father to be iconized, imaged only by His Son, and it is the property of the Son to iconize the Father. The iconicity of the Father is entirely and completely realized by the Son, so that there is no way that another image of the Father could exist alongside of and in addition to the Son. The Son entirely and completely exhausts in Himself the iconicity of the Father. So then, to see the Son is to see the only possible icon of the Father, and it is for this reason that no artistic icon of the hypostasis of Father is possible, for that icon is the Son of God himself. Therefore, a painted icon of the Son, the incarnate Logos, Jesus Christ, is a material image of the hypostatic image of the Father, an icon of an icon. We might say then that Orthodoxy has many images of the Father—the image of Christ Jesus Himself.
What then can be said of that famous icon of the Holy Trinity by St. Andrei Rublev? In this icon, taking as its inspiration the hospitality of Abraham from Genesis 18, where Abraham is visited by God in the form of three men, God is depicted iconographically by the image of three angels seated around a table. Are we able then to point to each individual Angel and say that it is an image of one of the hypostases of the Holy Trinity? Theologians are divided on this issue, and perhaps both the affirmation and negation of this notion are correct in different ways. If we isolate one of the Angels and say that it is a direct image of the hypostasis of the Father, we would be wrong. Of course, the Father is most definitely not an angel, therefore to depict the Father as an angel is not possible. The Son and the Spirit alike are not angels either, so depiction of Them as angels is also incorrect. What then do we have in this enigmatic image?
The Eidos icon
St. Andrei Rublev’s image of the Holy Trinity is an example of the particular use of symbol to express a particular thought-idea. We may speak of the Holy Trinity. We may name the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the very act of speaking about these things we engage in a certain act of iconization. If we engage in the apophatic mode of theology, we would say that the essence (ousia) of God is not the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit. These are names given to the hypostases of God, but not the essence of God, which is transcendent, unknowable, and unnamable. Therefore, to speak of the Holy Trinity is to engage in cataphatic theology. “Apophatic” is derived from the Greek term meaning “away from speech,” and conversely “cataphatic” is derived from the term meaning ‘toward speech.”
When engaging in cataphatic theology, we may use certain manners of speech, specifically that of naming, or we may use various types of visual depiction to reference the thought-idea of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For example, in naming one hypostasis of the Holy Trinity “Father” we are depicting this hypostasis as having certain qualities of parentage, of fatherhood, and this is an icon of sorts. In doing so, however, we are describing the hypostasis of the Father in His eternal generation of His own hypostatic image, the Son. By naming Him “The Father,” we are saying that He has a hypostatic image, that is, by the very name of the Father, we are immediately presented
with the hypostatic image of the Son.
We have distinguished, then, two types of icons: the hypostatic icon, which is the Son, and another icon which references or points to this hypostatic icon. The angelic depiction of the Father in Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon is of this second type. It is not an icon of the hypostasis of the Father. It is an icon of the thought-idea of Father by use of the angel as a symbol. All symbols contain a visible form, for which we can use the Greek word eidos. So we can speak about eidos icons, which symbolically depict ideas. The use of the angel as an eidos symbol carries the notion of “announcing” or “sending a message.” In both Greek and Hebrew, the term angel simply means “messenger.” So then, in the angelic image of the Holy Trinity, a message is sent or announced to us, which is the idea of the Holy Trinity itself, the revelation of the Holy Trinity as an idea present to our rational minds.
The Holy Spirit has an eidos icon, which is the image of a dove, seen in the icon of Theophany. St. Luke writes in his Gospel that the Spirit descended in the “form,” eidos, of a dove. The Holy Spirit is not a dove, of course, therefore the image of the Spirit as a dove is not a hypostatic icon but rather a symbolic eidos icon. In this symbol, we are reminded of the dove that Noah sent out to find the dry land after the flood. The Spirit in the form of a dove symbolizes to us the idea that the incarnate Christ, like the dry land, is the New Creation (cf. St. Paul’s phrase “Firstborn of all creation”), the New Adam, which rises up out of the waters of baptism as the land rose up out of the flood waters as a new creation.
The Ancient of days
The depiction of the Father as an old man, then, is not proper if it is understood as a hypostatic icon, that is, an image of the hypostasis of the Father, for the hypostasis of the Father is only depicted by His Son. The idea of the Father is depicted via the symbol of the angel. Can the idea of the Father be depicted as an old man? Some might argue so, though the propensity for this form to be understood as a hypostatic icon is perhaps too great, and in order to avoid this confusion, such depictions are regulated as non-canonical and prohibited by the 1667 Synod of Moscow (as they are understood to be images of the Father).
The Bible itself, however, uses the image of an old man, as an eidos image in the vision of Daniel, which he sees in a vision. “The Ancient of Days was seated; His garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head was like pure wool” (Dan. 7:9). In this context, however, we are not given the impression that this image refers to the hypostasis of the Father, but to God in His unified simplicity, i.e. in His oneness (The Synod of Moscow describes this vision as being of the Son). The idea symbolized here is the eternality of God, specifically that He exists before and after the earthly imperial powers which had subjected the Jewish people.
It is possible, then, to understand these “Old Man” icons as being icons of the “Ancient of Days,” and this is one way that they have been explicitly titled in painted icons. The other title that the “Old Man” icons take is “Lord Sabaoth” or “Lord of Hosts,” which references the vision of Isaiah in chapter 6 of his prophecy. Again, this image depicts the idea of God in His unified simplicity, not in His hypostatic plurality. The One Essence of God cannot be depicted in a direct manner, but the idea of it may be referenced symbolically through these eidos icons.  Nevertheless, these icons remain on the cusp of canonical permissibility, and they should be treated with caution.
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  1. Beloved, we should begin this topic by reading the acts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council and and see that the Holy Fathers of that council stated that God is in-depictable in His essence, but we are able to depict the Word Who became incarnate. Depicting the Father undermines those arguments.

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