Paternitas (New Testament Trinity)

Novgorod School, end of the 14th century.

Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 113 x 88 cm.



The Paternitas icon, also called the New Testament Trinity, is a representation of the three hypostases of the Trinity with Jesus depicted as an infant sitting on his father’s knees and accompanied by a dove, a symbol of the Holy Spirit. This type of Trinity was developed in Byzantium in the 11th century, but in Russia it became popular only after the fall of Constantinople (1453). Other versions of the New Testament Trinity have Jesus as a young man sitting side by side with his father. The reason the New Testament Trinity probably evolved was the desire to create an image of the Trinity more easily understood by the masses (particularly illiterate peasants) than the more ambiguous representation of the Old Testament Trinity. The distinction between the Old Testament Trinity and the New Testament Trinity depends on the clarity of identification whom each of the figures represents. In the New Testament Trinity each figure: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is represented distinctly, whereas in the Old Testament Trinity, based on the illustration of The Hospitality of Abraham, the Trinity is depicted as three unnamed wanderers-angels, whose identities we have to guess. This type of Trinity does not represent distinctly the three hypostases of the Holy Trinity, only creates a symbolic parallel between the three wanderers who appeared to Abraham and the Holy Trinity.

The New Testament Trinity caused many problems for Russian theologians, and as a result copies of this depiction of the Trinity from the Medieval age are scarce. For example, in Novgorod, during its period of eminence as the cultural center of Russia, only a handful of depictions of the Paternitas have been discovered. In addition, in 1667, during the Moscow Council, all representations of Paternitas were banned. Considering the distinct representation of God the Father, the Russian Orthodox Church proclaimed that it "Is most absurd and improper to depict in icons the Lord Sabaoth (that is to say, God the Father) with a grey beard and the Only-Begotten Son in His bosom with a dove between them, because no-one has seen the Father according to His Divinity, and the Father has no flesh, nor was the Son born in the flesh from the Father before the ages.” (Bigham) However, some scholars believe that this icon appeared as a response to the heretical movement of the strigolniks, questioning the idea of the Trinity.

Further evidence lamenting the attempts to depict God in human form can be found in the prophets and in John 6:46 where he conclusively states, "No man hath seen the Father, save the Son.” However, the fact that this Paternitas depiction appeared in Novgorod may be due to its geography, as it is located closer to the West, where there was much less restrictiveness in regards to representations of God the Father. Furthermore, justification for this New Testament Trinity (Paternitas) can be seen in the book of Daniel 7:9, where God the Father is represented as “the Ancient of Days” and subsequently in Isaiah 7:14 and 9:6, where The Ancient of Days is described as holding Christ Emmanuel on his lap, and the Son, in turn, holds a mandorla which envelops the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. It is important to note that this representation of the Holy Spirit as a dove is typical of the Gospels and reminds us of the fact that “the Spirit blows where it chooses.” This means that humanity knows not where the dove comes from or where it goes, only that in essence the dove is God.

The focal point of this image is the figure in white sitting on the throne. When one compares this figure’s depiction by the artist to the description of the Ancient One in Daniel 9:7 (“As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head was like pure wool; and his throne was fiery flames with wheels of burning fire”), the parallels between the image and the passage seem to indicate that the artist was using the passage as his guide while painting the Paternitas. One sees the similarities right down to wheels of burning fire (the angelic hierarchy of "thrones") at the bottom of the image. The platform at the feet of the “Ancient One” seems an odd addition, but upon further examination, it can be hypothesized that the painter wants to make a parallel between this throne and the huge thrones used by monarchs. The scroll in the figure’s left hand, also known as the divine hand, could potentially represent God’s plan for the whole universe. The next figure of interest is that of Christ Emmanuel. It is important to note how his posture reflects that of the Father; it could be that the painter is trying to use posture to symbolically highlight the close relationship between Christ and the Father. Christ is seen holding a dove or the Holy Spirit, enclosed in a medallion of uncreated light (indicated by the dark blue background), called a mandorla.

An interesting feature of this particular Paternitas is the inclusion of three figures in the background, two of them almost mirror-like images of one another and the other a standing figure on the bottom right. The mirror image is of a bearded man, seemingly deep in meditation, perched on top of a pillar. The bearded men depicted could potentially represent Simeon the Younger and St. Daniel, two famous stylites. Stylites were holy men who have devoted their life to the ideal that by forgoing all bodily comforts they are ensuring the salvation of their souls and the human kind; thus they lived, preached, fasted, and prayed from their chosen construct, whether that be a pillar, a cave, or a statuesque rock formation, for many years at a time. Both stylites depicted are wearing the schema, testifying to their highest monastic rank. The single figure in the bottom right seems out of place, but it has probably been positioned there for two main reasons. Scholars speulate that it is either the apostle Thomas or the apostle Philip. If it's Philip, his figure may allude to the text of the Gospels related to the idea that God the Father and God the Son are consubstantial. "And yet hast thou not known me Philip? He that hath seen me hath seen the Father... Believest thou not that I am in the Father and the Father in me?" (John 14, 9-10). Moreover, the figure of the apostle helps to maintain the impression of balance in the icon, as the left side has less free space in comparison to its right side. Secondly, the painter could have intentionally created this difference in space if his patron had requested to include his family’s patron saint somewhere within the icon. In that case, creating this excess space would give the painter the perfect opportunity to include a singular figure in the icon, while at the same time maintaining the balance of his overall composition.

Novgorod school of icon painting is distinct from the other Russian schools for a variety of reasons. Several of these differences can be recognized on this icon. Novgorod artists are noted for characteristically enhancing their paintings with white highlights, which create more depth and add to expressiveness of the composition. Take for example the faces of the main figures and the hair of the stylites and the Father. Both were initially done in what looks to be a dark brown or greenish sankir, but then the artist added white highlights to "age" his subjects. Secondly, when viewing the robe of the Father, one can clearly see that all the folds were outlined first with a strong dark color; this is representative of another Novgorodian innovation, an emphasis on the graphic quality of icons. Third, Novgorod icons were noted for their frequent use of bright colors and particularly a red hue known as cinnabar. This characteristic is most notable in the color of the throne and the robe of Christ Emmanuel. Fourth, we note the painter is attempting to create a sense of symmetry within the icon by making everything balanced; for example, while he could have just as easily put one stylite and one pillar, he chose to put two, giving the viewer a pleasant sense of balance. This icon is an exemplary product of the Novgorod school.

The importance of the doctrine of the Trinity to Christian faith cannot be understated. The Trinity doctrine is pivotal because it tells humanity What and Who God is; in other words, it is an embodiment of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Additionally, the Trinity easily makes understandable God’s redemptive actions upon humanity: God gave His Son to humanity thereby transferring His love and mercy upon sinners. Through His Son, repentant sinners are able to be viewed in a positive light on Judgment Day, and the Holy Spirit is directly responsible for the repentant sinners' rebirth in Christ and for their journey towards sanctification. The controversies surrounding the differing depictions of the Trinity, combined with the artistic qualities of this Paternitas icon prompted me to choose this work for a close examination. [N.D.]

[Source: Bigham].


© Alexander Boguslawski 1998-2011