Father, Son, Spirit

Thamburaj, A. J._The Holy Trinity
Fr. A. J. Thamburaj, SJ (Indian,, 1939–), The Holy Trinity, before 1982. Oil painting, 23 × 33 in.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

—2 Corinthians 13:14

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SONG: “Om Bhagwan” | Song from the Saccidananda Ashram songbook, composer unknown | Arranged by Chris Hale and Miranda Stone | Performed by Yeshu Satsang Toronto, on Bhakti Geet, vol. 4 (2019)

This Trinitarian song in Hindi comes from a Benedictine monastery in Tamil Nadu. It is performed here by married couple Chris Hale (who grew up in Nepal and India) and Miranda Stone and others from Yeshu Satsang Toronto, a community whose expression of Yeshu Bhakti (Jesus devotion) is “distinctly urban and Canadian, yet informed by the simplicity of the village, honouring what is handmade, humble, and real . . . , navigating . . . between what is traditional and what is progressive.” A transliteration, with English translation, follows. The sacred syllable Om, or Aum, isn’t really translatable.

Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Prabhu Pita Bhagawan
Om God, Om God, Om God, Lord Father God

Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Prabhu Putra Bhagawan
Om God, Om God, Om God, Lord Son God

Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Prabhu Aatma Bhagawan
Om God, Om God, Om God, Lord Spirit God

Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Prabhu Yeshu Bhagawan
Om God, Om God, Om God, Lord Jesus God

[Related posts: “Exalted Trinity (Artful Devotion)”; “Namaste Sate (Artful Devotion)”]

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Painted by the Jesuit artist-priest Father A. J. Thamburaj, The Holy Trinity expresses a complex theological doctrine through mudras (Indian hand gestures) and color. I scanned the image from the excellent book Christian Art in India by Herbert E. Hoefer (Chennai: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute, 1982), which features art by thirty-five artists and essay contributions by Jyoti Sahi. Hoefer describes the painting:

Green is the colour of creativity and fertility. Red is the colour of activity. Blue is the colour of the sea and sky, symbols of mystery and eternity. Yellow [saffron] is an auspicious and joyful colour in Indian custom.

The upraised hand [abaya mudra] is a symbol of protection in Indian art and dance. It represents the Father. Its message is ‘Fear not’. The fish denotes the ever-watching eye of God, for the eyelids of the fish never close.

The downward hand [varada mudra] represents Christ. This gesture is common in Indian sculpture and dance. God is said to point his devotees to hide under the arch of his foot for refuge. The red wound reminds us that the risen Lord bears the redemptive marks of the crucifixion.

The red hand symbolizes the purifying fire, the Holy Spirit. The spiral line indicates the wind, connecting all three Persons in unity. Fire and wind are power.

Our life is in the ever-present protecting, redeeming, purifying and empowering hands of the Triune God.

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In the church’s year, Trinity Sunday is the day when we stand back from the extraordinary sequence of events that we’ve been celebrating for the previous five months—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost—and when we rub the sleep from our eyes and discover what the word “god” might actually mean. These events function as a sequence of well-aimed hammer-blows which knock at the clay jars of the gods we want, the gods who reinforce our own pride or prejudice, until they fall away and reveal instead a very different god, a dangerous god, a subversive god, a god who comes to us like a blind beggar with wounds in his hands, a god who comes to us in wind and fire, in bread and wine, in flesh and blood: a god who says to us, “You did not choose me; I chose you.”

You see, the doctrine of the Trinity, properly understood, is as much a way of saying “we don’t know” as of saying “we do know.” To say that the true God is Three and One is to recognize that if there is a God then of course we shouldn’t expect him to fit neatly into our little categories. If he did, he wouldn’t be God at all, merely a god, a god we might perhaps have wanted. The Trinity is not something that the clever theologian comes up with as a result of hours spent in the theological laboratory, after which he or she can return to announce that they’ve got God worked out now, the analysis is complete, and here is God neatly laid out on a slab. The only time they laid God out on a slab he rose again three days afterwards.

On the contrary: the doctrine of the Trinity is, if you like, a signpost pointing ahead into the dark, saying: “Trust me; follow me; my love will keep you safe.” Or, perhaps better, the doctrine of the Trinity is a signpost pointing into a light which gets brighter and brighter until we are dazzled and blinded, but which says: “Come, and I will make you children of light.” The doctrine of the Trinity affirms the rightness, the propriety, of speaking intelligently that the true God must always transcend our grasp of him, even our most intelligent grasp of him.

—N. T. Wright, For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Trinity Sunday, cycle A, click here.

Exalted Trinity (Artful Devotion)

Trinity (Getty MS)
Miniature from a 15th-century French manuscript (Ms. Ludwig XI 10, fol. 2, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles).

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, . . . and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

—Romans 5:1, 5

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SONG: “Doxology” | Text: From Canticle 12, “A Song of Creation,” in the Book of Common Prayer | Music by Uptown Worship Band, performed on Songs from Earth, Our Island Home (2014)

Let us glorify the Lord: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit;
praise him and highly exalt him forever.
In the firmament of his power, glorify the Lord;
praise him and highly exalt him forever.

Uptown Worship Band leads contemporary worship at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, Texas.

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All efforts to visualize the Trinity are obviously deficient. The doctrine resists figuration. (How do you convey three distinct divine persons who share one essence?) But that hasn’t stopped artists from trying. Over the centuries, several different types evolved to represent the Three-in-One. The example above, from a late medieval French translation of Augustine’s City of God, shows the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit enthroned in heaven—the Father as an old man holding a globe, at his right hand the Son still bearing the wounds of his passion, and the Holy Spirit hovering between them in the form of a dove. The two male figures share a royal robe and jointly hold open a book, their word of truth.

The first person of the Trinity is not a human, nor even male, but in Scripture God reveals himself as father and as Ancient of Days, so anthropomorphic depictions developed, though they have always been controversial. These are meant not to be taken literally but, rather, to tell us a little something about God: that he relates to us like a father relates to his children . . . and that he’s ancient! Authority and personhood are more easily shown through figuration, and our anonymous artist here (through the single robe and single seat) conveys the idea that Father, Son, and Spirit are enthroned together as one, together vested with divinity. This is only one aspect of the rich doctrine that is the Trinity.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Trinity Sunday, cycle C, click here.

Upcoming lectures

“The Perils and Peculiarities of Visually Depicting the Trinity”
Speakers: Dr. Ben Quash, Professor of Christianity and the Arts at King’s College London; Dr. Scott Nethersole, Senior Lecturer in Italian Renaissance Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art
Date: February 21, 2018
Location: Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London
Organizer: Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College and the Courtauld Institute of Art
Cost: Free
Description: Nethersole will discuss Botticelli’s Trinity Altarpiece, with special attention paid to its unsettling disjunctions of scale and space—a theological decision on the part of the artist. Then Quash “will examine some of the larger theological problems that are raised by trinitarian visual imagery, and look at . . . some of the successes and failures of various artistic experiments, including one or two very recent ones.” Q&A and informal reception to follow.

Holy Trinity by Sandro Botticelli
Sandro Botticelli (Italian, ca. 1445–1510), Holy Trinity with Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, and Tobias and the Angel, 1491–93. Tempera on panel, 215 × 192 cm. Courtauld Gallery, London.

“Religion in Museum Education” (conference)
Speakers: Dr. Caroline Widmer, Dr. Anna Chiara Cimoli, et al. (see link for full list)
Date: February 23, 2018
Location: Lorenzo de’ Medici Institute, Florence
Organizer: Forum on Museums and Religion, an initiative of the Lorenzo de’ Medici Institute’s Museum Studies MA program
Cost: Free
Description: This one-day conference will bring together museum educators and religious authorities to discuss how secular museums housing religious objects might develop educational programming that highlights sacred functions without risking the impression of a religious agenda. Lecture topics include “Understanding Religion through Art,” “Sharing the Sacred with Schools,” “Teaching from Paintings with Religious Subject Matter,” “Churches as Living Museums,” and more, and case studies will come from the British Museum, the Uffizi in Florence, Museum Rietberg in Zurich, the National Museum for the History of Immigration in Paris, and the Shoah Memorial and Pinateca di Brera in Milan. The conference will conclude with a roundtable discussion.

“The New Iconoclasm: A Christological Reflection on Making and Breaking Images”
Speaker: Dr. Natalie Carnes, Associate Professor of Theology at Baylor University
Date: February 28, 2018
Location: Alumni Memorial Common Room, Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina, USA
Organizer: Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts (DITA)
Cost: Free
Description: Carnes’s lecture will draw on the content of her new book from Stanford University Press, Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia. “Christians of many epochs—glutted with images, shocked by them—have resorted to the iconoclast’s hammer or its successor, the authoritarianism of empty space. Natalie Carnes proposes a better way to live through our senses” (Mark D. Jordan, Harvard University). “A major contribution to the discussion of image as and in theology” (Judith Wolfe, University of St. Andrews).

Image and Presence (book cover)

“‘In the manner of smoke’: Leonardo, Art, and Faith” (5-hour mini-course)
Lecturer: Rev. Iain Lane, Tutor in Christian Doctrine and the Visual Arts
Date: March 3, 2018
Location: Holywell Lodge, St. Albans, Hertfordshire, England
Organizer: St. Albans Cathedral
Cost: £25
Description: “Leonardo da Vinci produced some of the most compelling images in the history of Christian art. . . . This study day explores each of Leonardo’s surviving, overtly Christian works in detail, exploring their meaning and setting them in context. The picture which is revealed is of an artist of profound religious sensibility rooted in both scientific rationality and a deep awareness of the human condition: a man who embodied a unity of vision which has arguably been lost in our own age.”

Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452–1519), Annunciation, ca. 1472. Oil on panel, 98 × 217 cm. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

“Swords into Ploughshares: The Ambivalent Role of the Arts and Religion in Building Peace”
Lecturer: Dr. Jolyon Mitchell, Professor of Communication, Arts, and Religion at the University of Edinburgh
Date: March 7, 2018
Location: Sarum College, Salisbury, England
Organizer: Centre for Theology, Imagination, and Culture at Sarum College
Cost: Free (advance booking required)
Description: This lecture will explore the role of different media arts in both inciting violence and promoting peace, drawing on examples from countries such as Israel-Palestine, Mozambique, Rwanda, and the UK.

“Scandal and Glory: The Cross in the Bible and Poetry”
Speakers: Paula Gooder, Director of Mission, Learning, and Development in the Birmingham Diocese; Mark Oakley, Canon Chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral
Date: March 13, 2018
Location: St. Paul’s Cathedral, London
Organizer: St. Paul’s Cathedral (Adult Learning initiative)
Cost: Free
Description: “Is Christ on the cross our brother in suffering or our King in triumph? Jesus’ death is at the heart of Christianity, but the four Gospel accounts are very different and the cross has been seen as both the throne of God’s glory and the place of ultimate desolation and defeat. In addition we have 2,000 years of interpretations, paintings, poems, theologies, and liturgies that add to the complexity, and sometimes to the confusion. . . . Paula Gooder and Mark Oakley will look at different aspects of the cross through the Gospels and poetry, exploring some of what we might learn from it not only of sin and reconciliation, but also of new life, love, freedom, and creation made new.” Q&A to follow.

“Art and the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation and Visual Exegesis”
Speakers: Dr. Natasha O’Hear, Lecturer in Theology and Visual Art at ITIA, University of St. Andrews, Scotland; Dr. Anthony O’Hear, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Buckingham
Date: March 16, 2018
Location: The Gallery, 70 Cowcross Street, London
Organizer: Art and Christianity
Cost: £12
Description: Drawing on their recent award-winning book Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia, the O’Hears will explore the visual history of the book of Revelation as well as the notion of the artist as biblical exegete. The focus will be on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rev. 6) and the Rider on the White Horse (Rev. 19).

Picturing the Apocalypse

“Women Artists and the Modern Church in Britain”
Lecturer: Dr. Ayla Lepine, Visiting Fellow in Art History at the University of Essex
Date: April 4, 2018
Location: The Gallery, 70 Cowcross Street, London
Organizer: Art and Christianity
Cost: £14.21
Description: “From the turn of the twentieth century to the present, women have produced diverse and complex works of art for and in response to the Church. This talk explores the relationship between Christian sacred spaces, from vast and well-known cathedrals to rural chapels, and women artists in a period in which feminism, culture, and Christianity engaged in new dialogues.” Artists include Winifred Knights, Elizabeth Frink, Enid Chadwick, and Tracey Emin.

For You by Tracey Emin
Tracey Emin (British, 1963–), For You, 2008. Neon sign. Liverpool Cathedral, England.

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Many of these events I found out about through the weekly Arts and the Sacred at King’s (ASK) e-bulletin compiled by Dr. Chloë Reddaway. If you would like to be added to the ASK listserv or announce a relevant event through it, contact her at chloe.1.reddaway@kcl.ac.uk.

Note: The two book cover images on this webpage are Amazon affiliate links, meaning that Art & Theology will earn a small commission on any purchase that originates here.

Religious art highlights from New Mexico

I spent last week in New Mexico with my husband, Eric, and my in-laws, visiting relatives in the south, then driving up north to spend some time in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. It was my first time to the Southwest, to the state where Eric was born; his grandparents came over from Mexico as teenagers and settled in Hobbs, a small oil town, and his mom grew up there, learning English in school. I enjoyed all the tastes: spicy green chiles in or on just about everything (eggs, tacos, burgers, soup, corn, French fries); piñons (pine nuts) galore sprinkled alongside dusty footpaths, ready to crack open and eat; and sopapillas (pillow-shaped fried dough drizzled with honey) after every meal.

On the five-hour upstate drive, the blue sky spread wide open across the desert and clouds hung low, casting shadows that, from the car, looked like bodies of water. The way was flat, flat, flat—until we reached Santa Fe, where mountains rose up and aspens flickered their glorious gold.

In Albuquerque we went to the International Balloon Fiesta, where hundreds of hot-air balloonists come out once a year to fly. Unfortunately, high winds prevented the “mass ascension” from happening the day we were there, but we saw static displays—inflated balloons in all shapes and colors. (My father-in-law was partial to the Darth Vader balloon; I liked the lovebirds.) And I got to visit to the artisan tent, where I bought my first nativity set! It’s seven pieces in clay by New Mexico native Barbara Boyd. I set it up in our living room when I got home, but Eric says I need to put it away until Advent . . .

Nativity by Barbara Boyd

We spent an afternoon in Old Town Albuquerque, strolling past historic adobe buildings and into galleries, while street musicians—Native American flautists and mariachi bands, mostly—provided a culturally immersive soundtrack. Our first stop happened to be one of my favorites: John Isaac Antiques and Folk Art. Isaac has a beautiful collection of santos (Hispano Catholic religious images)—a whole roomful—both contemporary and from the last few centuries. I was close to buying a Saint Francis bulto by Ben Ortega (Francis was his hallmark) but decided against it, and now I wish I hadn’t. Nonbuyer’s remorse—ugh.

Just before we left Old Town, my mother-in-law suggested one last gallery: Santisima, owned by Johnny Salas. I immediately recognized the work of Albuquerque native Brandon Maldonado, which is heavily influenced by the tradition of Día de los Muertos. I’m really attracted to Day of the Dead imagery, with all its macabre whimsy—the kind that makes most Protestants feel uncomfortable. I think the draw, for me, is that it embraces death instead of shrinking away from it; it says, “Death, we do not fear you.” As Maldonado says, Day of the Dead is not meant to be frightful but rather mocking, in a way:

The masses may prefer to think of the deceased as haloed angels floating on fluffy white clouds, but I like the idea of dancing skeletons in hats!

At Santisima I was introduced to the work of the young santero Vicente Telles, also a native of Albuquerque. I really liked his Adam and Eve and Saint Pelagia retablos but most especially his Crucifixion one, which I ended up buying.

Crucifixion by Vicente Telles
Vicente Telles (American, 1983–), Cristo crucificado (Christ Crucified), 2015. Natural and watercolor pigments on pinewood, 7.5 × 6.5 in. (framed).

It shows a curtain opening up, and two chandeliers dangling, to present Christ on the cross, given for us. As is traditional in New Mexican art, his shoulders and knees are bloodied; in Telles’s interpretation, the blood marks Christ in patterns, almost like tattoos. The animas solas (lonely souls) in the flames of purgatory is also a common motif in New Mexican art. I do not personally subscribe to the doctrine of purgatory, so I read the souls, rather, as Adam and Eve awaiting redemption. According to church tradition, Golgotha was the site not only of Christ’s execution but also of Adam’s burial, which is why, since the Middle Ages, a skull is often painted at the cross’s base, emphasizing Christ’s role as the Second Adam. Telles shows Eve reaching out to touch this death-symbol, lamenting her and Adam’s primordial rebellion and pleading in faith, with her eyes, for deliverance from its consequences. This is the precursor to the Anastasis (Resurrection) icon of Eastern Orthodoxy, which shows Jesus breaking down the doors of Sheol and pulling Adam and Eve up out of their graves to be with him in heaven. We are dead in our sins until Christ raises us. His spilled blood has “loosed the pains of death” once and for all.

To give the retablo a glistening appearance, Telles applied a micaceous clay slip to the pinewood before applying the paint.

If you’re not able to see Telles’s art in person at Santisima (he’s sold exclusively there), visit his Facebook page.   Continue reading “Religious art highlights from New Mexico”