Should We Paint God the Father?

One of the most famous pieces of sacred art that exists is Michelangelo’s fresco, in the Sistine Chapel, of God giving the spark of life to Adam. Despite its popularity and familiarity, I had often wondered about the validity of representing God the Father. My own instincts run against the idea of portraying God the Father in a painting at all, even when I was a child (I always thought that the white-whiskered God looked more like God the Grandfather, than God the Father). Later on in life, this was reinforced by the fact that my icon painting training led me to believe that it was wrong.  I was pretty sure, but not certain, that it was not part of the tradition. Certainly, I have never painted an icon of God the Father. Furthermore, the theology of Theodore the Studite in regard to sacred imagery, which is accepted by both Eastern and Western Churches, bases the argument for the creation of any figurative art upon the fact that we can portray the person of Christ as man. The person of God the Father is a spiritual being and most certainly not man. This would seem to suggest that we should not portray the Father as man either.

I quietly suspected that the white-bearded God of Michelangelo or William Blake or even my favourite baroque artist Velazquez were all in error, his Crowning of the Virgin by the Trinity is to the right. I wasn't too worried about Blake, an eccentric non-Catholic, but Michelangelo and Velazquez?

I was approached recently to do a commission that involves the portrayal of the Father. Rather than reject it out of hand, I thought I had better find out where the Church stands on this.

Here’s what my first investigations have revealed. For the first thousand years or so of Christianity, East and West, there was little portrayal of the Father figuratively. Then images started to appear in both the Eastern and Western traditions, though it was more common in the West.

There are two simple arguments that I have found for the representation of the Father: the first is that Christ said in John 14:9 that whoever has seen me has seen the Father. This would seem to open up to a representation of the Father as the Son. So, one could say, seeing an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is also seeing one of the Sacred Heart of the Father, with the heart of the Father understood as a symbol of His love.

The second is that the white-bearded figure, which we are all familiar with is the Ancient of Days in the book of Daniel (7:9, 13, 22). This is the source of so many familiar portrayals of the Father. In the East there is a tradition known as the New Testament Trinity. This title would distinguish it from the Hospitality of Abraham (in which three angelic strangers represent the three persons of the Trinity). Right is a Greek Orthodox New Testament Trinity from the ceiling of the entrance Vatopedion Monastery at Agion Oros (Mount Athos), Greece. The Catholic Church, allows for the interpretation of the Ancient of Days as the Father, which justifies the portrayal of the Father. (I have been told that Pope Benedict XIV [fourteenth, not sixteenth!] in 1745 pronounced this, though beyond a Wikipedia reference I have not been able to validate this). It also allows for the interpretation of the Ancient of Days as Christ. The Russian Orthodox Church, since the synod of Moscow in 1667 has forbidden the portrayal of God the Father as a man. Consistent with this it interprets the Ancient of Days strictly as the Son. It is this decision of the pronouncement by the Russian church that gave me the idea, wrongly, that it had never been part of the Eastern tradition and that the whole present Eastern Church forbids it.

There is a Western tradition of portrayal of the trinity in a type known as the Throne of Mercy, in which the Father sits on his throne and presents his crucified son to the viewer while a dove rests on the cross or hovers just above it. It was this that was explicitly mentioned by Benedict XIV. A 16th century German version is shown left. This tradition goes right back the Medieval times in the Western Church and we have this continued even into the 20th century with Eric Gill in England doing woodcut of this image in a modern gothic style.

So where do I stand on this now? Clearly the portrayal of the Father as a grey-haired man is permitted. I would feel on safest ground following the traditional presentations, such as the Mercy Throne image. Outside that, I would be consider images, but would be cautious, unwilling to promote, as Caroline Farey of the School of the Annunciation put it to me, ‘any trend of anthropomorphizing God the Father in case the transcendence of God is further compromised in people's imaginations.’

It is worth pointing out also, that when God is portrayed as a single person in the form of the Ancient of Days, we cannot be sure that it is the Father who is portrayed. The artist might, quite justifiably, have the intention of representing the Son. I have not, for example, been able to find an authoritative text that tells us precisely which person of the Trinity either Michelangelo or Blake intended us to be looking at (I would welcome comments from readers on this point).

Below: an early gothic Mercy Throne; a 20th century version by the Englishman, Eric Gill; an early gothic pieta in which God the Father supports the son; a baroque Mercy Throne by Ribera, 17th century; and William Blake's Ancient of Days.

Praying with the Cosmos – the Ancient Treasury of the Divine Office I

An ancient beautiful prayer that leads us to joy, and opens us up to inspiration and creativity; part 1, part 2 here The Divine Office (also called the Liturgy of the Hours), is one of the four pillars of the spiritual life of the new liturgical movement. This is the first in a regular series that highlight the riches of the the liturgy of the Church and how it is at the root of Western culture.

'The Mass is a precious jewel and that jewel has its setting, which is the Divine Office. The Divine Office also has its setting, which is the cosmos.' This is how a priest who was visiting Thomas More College of Liberal Arts put it to me recently. In the picture of words he painted for us, the Divine Office mediates between the Mass and cosmos. Through its pattern of prayer, it highlights for us the rhythms and patterns of sacred time, which are reflected also in the cosmos. The cosmos points us not only to the Divine Office, through its order, but also through its beauty draws us in and lifts our souls to God in heaven. God's angels and His saints are praying the heavenly liturgy - this is the activity, so to speak, of the exchange of love with God in perfect and perpetual bliss. And through the Mass the heavenly and the earthly, the divine and the human meet and the otherwise impassable divide is bridged supernaturally. By it, can step supernaturally into the heavenly dimension.

The Divine Office is an often-forgotten ancient form prayer, which has its roots in the pre-Christian worship of the Jews. We can assume that as a devout Jew, Christ will have prayed it, and we know from the Acts of the Apostles that the tradition was continued by His Church. Priests and religious of the Church are obliged to pray it to this day and we would perhaps most commonly associated it with the chanting of monks and nuns. But it is not their preserve. In the past it was a widespread regular practice for most lay people also. The Church of today encourages lay people to pray this too placing it in value above all other prayers and devotions apart from the Mass.  I was first encouraged to pray it by my spiritual director, one of the Fathers at the London Oratory, when I was living in England. It has been a life transforming experience for me.

In essence the Divine Office is simple. We say, or ideally sing, the psalms at regular intervals during the day, marking significant times called ‘Hours’. It is part of the Liturgy, the formal and public worship of the Church (like the Mass) and for this reason also known as the Liturgy of the Hours. If you want to pray with the priests of the Church then you can see each Office set out each day at

If we pray in harmony with rhythms and patterns of the cosmos, especially the cycles of the the sun, the moon and the stars, then the whole person, body and soul, is conforming to the order of heaven. The daily repetitions, the weekly, monthly and season cycles of the liturgy allow us to do just that. In his book, the Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI calls our apprehension of this order, when we see the beauty of Creation a glimpse into 'the mind of the Creator'. This conformity in prayer opens us up so that we are drawing in the breath of the Spirit, so to speak, as God chooses to exhale. It increases our receptivity to inspiration and God’s consoling grace and leads us more deeply into the mystery of the Mass.

Also, participation in the Liturgy of the Hours is an education in beauty. It impresses upon our souls the order of the cosmos and so enhances our creativity. Whatever your discipline, ideas that are in harmony with the natural order are more likely to occur to you in your daily work. For example, I wrote about how awareness of the symmetry of the natural order has already aided scientific research, in the field of particle physics, in a previous article called Creativity in Science through Beauty.

Those who want to learn about this can approach any priest or religious (ie monk or nun) and ask them what they do. Alternatively, the Way of Beauty summer retreats at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts teach us how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and how you can realistically incorporated it into a busy working or family life. It also teaches us just how the heavenly order that permeates traditional Western culture and can again in the future. Those who are interested in more information about this should go here.

For a longer essay on this read The Cosmic Liturgy and the Mind of the Creator.

The painting at the top is Fra Angelico and the frescoes below are by Giotto. Note the stars in the sky. This is not just a device by an interior designer to make the space seem bigger by creating the illusion that there is no roof. This is deliberately encouraging in us the sense that the cosmos is praying with us and that the heavens point us to Heaven.

Part II is here.


Below, Giotto's The Last Judgement.

Pilgrimage to a Forgotten Ancient Church in Matera, Italy

Matera is in southern Italy (just inland from the arch in the boot-shaped country). In the later classical period and through to the Middle Ages it has been occupied by Romans, Lombards, Byzantines, Germans and Normans and the handover was usually less than peaceful. The area is known for its underground churches, rather like the catacombs but dating much later. My former teacher when I was studying the academic method in Florence, Matt Collins, now lives there. Matt is an American and one of the few people around that I know who has applied his academic training to painting in the baroque style (as distinct from the 19th century). As well as oils, he is an expert in the technique of fresco and runs regular classes in Italy teaching this ancient and very durable technique.  The underground churches of Matera contain many frescoes and they have survived the Romans and all the waves of conquerers, only to be damaged recently by modern-day vandals and graffiti artist. What a shame!  Matt describes them in his blog and it is his pilgrimage that the title refers to. The painting shown is Matt's landscape of the approach to the entrance of two underground churches. To read more about his, go to his article by following the link here. You can also see more of his work there too.


The photograph above is of the entrance to the ravine, and below, of the entrance to one of the churches in the hillside.

Inside with the apse with niche and altar

And finally, just if any are wondering what Matt's art is like here is a beautiful still life displaying the classic baroque stylistic element that readers of this blog will recognise - the variation in focus;  the depletion of colour and reduction of contrast away from the natural foci of the composition.

Fra Angelico's Theology of Light

I thought I would do a short series (I intend three at this stage) of articles focussing on paintings by the gothic artists, looking at two of my favourites Fra Angelico and Duccio. Fra Angelico, the 15th century Florentine artist is normally considered late gothic in style. Duccio, from Siena, worked earlier, in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Duccio's work represents the more iconographic based style and Fra Angelic the more naturalistic. Looking at these two exemplars of early and late gothic art gives us a good sense of what characterises this tradition. This is not just for the purpose of an art history discussion. I think that there is much to benefit from artists today who are trying to spark the ‘new epiphany of beauty’ by looking at the gothic tradition. First, it is one of the three authentic Catholic liturgical traditions cited by Pope Benedict XVI in The Spirit of the Liturgy. Also, I often find in conversation that his work appeals to people who have a similar understanding of the Faith, the liturgy and Catholic culture as I do. It seems that for many, Fra Angelico in particular has the balance of naturalism and idealism that nourishes the prayer of modern man. John Paul II gave him a special mention in his Letter to Artists. I think therefore that perhaps this could be a good starting point for artists to study and from which a distinctive art of Vatican II could develop in the future (just as the baroque, which developed from the base of the stylistic developments of the High Renaissance, might be considered the art of the counter-Reformation and of the Council of Trent). Only time will tell if I am right in this regard, of course.

The gothic style arose from a different understanding of man's perception of the natural world through his senses. The ideas that drove it developed from about 1000AD onwards with the rediscovery of the philosophy of Aritotle and the subsequent incorporation of his ideas into Christian thinking by figures such as St Thomas. The love of nature of Franciscan spirituality was also influential in popularizing the ideas. I have written more about this here.

As I wrote in a commentary on his Annunciation, Fra Angelico working late in the period is very interesting to study for his selective use of the features of the well observed naturalism such as perspective, shadow and figures in profile; and his retention at other times of those features of iconographic art.

If we look his Resurrection a fresco from one of the cells in the monastery of San Marco in Florence, we see Christ rising in an almond shaped mandorla, the traditional symbol of His glory, carrying the red and white Resurrection penant. The background is shadowy and dark and we see the tomb drawn with naturalistic perspective. The angel is in profile, which would never be seen in an iconographic painting, though shining with uncreated light which one would expect in iconographic art.

There is one stylistic feature that Fra Angelico uses that interests me greatly. This is his habit of putting the face of Christ in shadow. On first sight this is strange, since he shows the rest of the person of Christ shining with light and the face of the angel, a great, but nevertheless lesser being is totally in light. When I first noticed this I wondered why? A Dominican friar in England told me his interpretation of this: Fra Angelico is showing a light that is brighter still. In fact it is so bright that it blinds us - it is too much for us, fallen human beings who are observing Him, to bear. I find this explanation convincing, especially because we see in in other paintings by Fra Angelico, for example the Transfiguration and the Sermon on the Mount have the same feature.

Aidan Hart's Icons in Fresco

When I was in my early thirties (quite late to be making these decisions) I made an earnest decision to try to learn icon painting. I telephoned the only icon painter I knew, someone whom I had met once about five years earlier. Since I had met him, Br Aidan had spent a number of years on Mt Athos and on returning to England had founded a hermitage, that of SS Anthony and Cuthbert in Shropshire, England. I asked him to teach me icon painting. It was interesting that in response he was interested in my reasons for wishing to paint, rather than my natural ability. He asked me first why I was interested in icons. I had converted to Catholicism just a couple of years earlier and I explained that I wanted to learn to paint to serve the Church. Then (and I can’t remember precisely how he phrased the next question) he asked me what, if anything was possible, I would like to do with my art. I told him that I wanted to be able to paint something like the Sistine Chapel that really gave glory to God on a grand scale. He didn’t laugh (which is what I was half expecting). I remember him saying, ‘This sounds good.’ Then he paused and said: ‘I’m frescoing the chapel at the hermitage at the moment. Would you like to come and stay with me and help me?’ This was extraordinarily generous of him. So off I went to stay with him for a week and this was my introduction to frescoing. I was shown how to mix the plaster, how to apply it, and then how to paint onto the partially hardened plaster. He had built a wooden container about 2ft square and 2” deep to contain an area of plaster. As an exercise, I painted on this a copy of a Minoan fresco from Crete. After this introduction to the medium, I assisted him with the chapel itself, mostly lifting and grunt work. The most valuable lesion was watching Aidan doing the painting. Aidan was much better at painting than me, but also, as a result of being a hard-working hermit and farmer, he was also in much better shape than me. My recollection is that I was not particularly helpful and did most of the grunting, while he did most of the lifting. Nevertheless, by the end of the week he did allow me to assist in some minor detailing on the chapel wall and painted some faux drapery. He had a tiny chapel, perhaps 15ft square, which he frescoed from floor to ceiling. The iconostasis separated a sanctuary about 4ft wide from the body of the chapel. Once it was finished, to see a church painted from floor to ceiling took the breath away. Fresco is a medium that is not seen very often today. A summary of the method can be seen on Aidan’s website here, along with more of his work. There are some considerations that ought to be considered. First, the pigment is painted onto wet plaster which can be worked on for about a day after application. This means that there is always visible join between one day’s work and the next. The easiest way to stop this being too much of a distraction is to consider how much you can do in a day and allow the plaster line to coincide with a line in the final composition. It also means that in order to cover large areas (even those areas in this chapel would be very large paintings if put onto panel or canvas) the artist needs to be able to work expertly and fast. Aidan is both expert and fast, but even it is noticeable that he rations the time-consuming modeled areas to those that really need it, the faces. In the areas of drapery, for example, he relies far more on flat colour and line to describe form than he would in for example, his panel icons. This is fine for icon painting, which relies on line strongly to describe form. In more naturalistic styles, the ability to summarise form into simple shapes of tone with minimal blending is necessary to cover at speed those areas that are not the primary focus of interest. This is immensely difficult. This is why one can never cease marvel at the skill of, for example, Michelangelo or Raphael in their work in the Vatican. Also, deep shadow is difficult to portray in fresco. In this respect it is rather like egg tempera. Dark colours are possible, as we can see in Aidan's work, but they tend to look flat, rather like soot sitting on the surface, rather than creating an illusion of deep space in the way that a transparent glaze of dark oil paint does. This is not a problem for the iconographic form which deliberately seeks to destroy the illusion of space. It also makes it very good for decorative or patterned work which relies on flat areas of colour and tone that contrast with each other. In those forms that rely on deep shadow, the problem is more difficult. The naturalistic painters particularly those working in the styles of the High Renaissance and the baroque had to adapt by learning to work in a higher register of colour as effectively a half of the spectrum of tone is denied to them. This involves great skill. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the work of Tiepolo, which has a distinctive light, airy feel. The high register colours he uses in his oil paintings look to me like oil versions of those that you see in fresco. Tiepolo was an expert in both media. I cannot prove this, but it has occurred to me that perhaps the restrictions placed by fresco open up the route to the developments he made in his oils. All the frescoes shown are by Aidan Hart at