God the Father, Iconography of

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By God the Father is understood the creator of the world and sole reigning deity of the Old Testament as well as the first Person of the Holy trinity. He has been represented in successive periods of Christian art chiefly as the divine hand, a beardless young man, the Ancient of Days, and the celestial pope or emperor. In the late Middle Ages in representations attempting a literal translation of the consubstantiality of the Trinity the physical traits of God the Father are identical with those of Christ.

In the earliest Christian iconography God is symbolized by a hand issuing from a cloud or nimbus. This was a workable compromise between the injunction of the Second Commandment and the need in art for an effective symbol of the divine power in its various manifestations. The hand appears expressively in a variety of scenes from the Old Testament. It orders Noah to build the ark; it prevents Abraham from sacrificing Isaac; it delivers the Commandments to Moses on Sinai; and it transports the Prophet Ezekiel from the valley of the dry bones (3dcentury fresco, DuraEuropos, Syria). On the bronze doors of Hildesheim the hand of God presides in a scene depicting the offering of Cain and Abel. The appearance of the divine hand is not so common in New Testament scenes. Still, it blesses Christ at the moment of baptism in the Jordan, consoles Him during the Agony in the Garden, and assists Him in the Ascension. The hand of benediction occurs also in many scenes of dying saints.

The representation of God the Father as the most venerable of Patriarchs, the Ancient of Days, stems from a graphic passage in the Book of Daniel (7.9): "As I watched, thrones were set up and the Ancient One [Antiquus dierum ] took his throne. His clothing was snow bright, and the hair on his head as white as wool." A full beard completed the figure in the Middle Ages. The earliest examples occur in Byzantine art of the 11th century, and by the end of the 12th century the type had taken hold in western Christendom (fresco in the crypt of the chapel of Saint Blaise, Brindisi).

With the heightening of realism in the later Middle Ages God the Father was represented in the guise of a pope or emperor, wearing the papal tiara or imperial crown. The celestial ruler of all thus was endowed in art with the costly and impressive garb of His temporal delegates. This lavish iconographic type was abandoned in the Renaissance. Michelangelo combined the medieval type of the Ancient of Days, revivified by antique portrayals of Jupiter, with the divine hand of early Christian art. In his remarkable synthesis of elements in the sistine chapel creation scene the whole figure of God in a supreme gesture of divine creativity issues from heaven with right arm, hand, and forefinger outstretched in a dramatic moment of imparting life to the form of Adam. The Michelangelesque type of God the Father remained dominant in his own time and provided the model for later generations of artists.

See Also: trinity, holy, iconography of.

Bibliography: a. n. didron, Christian Iconography, tr. e. j. millington, completed by m. stokes, 2 v. (London 1886). a. jameson and lady eastlake, The History of Our Lord as Exemplified in Works of Art (4th ed. London 1888). h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. cabrol, h. leclercq, and h. i. marrou, 15 v. (Paris 190753) 4:821824. l. heimaier, Die Gottheit in der älteren christlichen Kunst (Munich 1922). k. kÜnstle, Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst, 2 v. (Freiburg 192628) 1: 221239. l. rÉau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, 6 v. (Paris 195559) 2:329.

[l. p. siger]