Holy Trinity Icon
The Holy Trinity is an important subject of iconographic representation in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and has a rather different treatment from depictions in the Western Churches. There are two different types of Holy Trinity icons: the Old Testament Trinity and the New Testament Trinity (Троица Ветхозаветная and Троица Новозаветная in Russian).
Old Testament Trinity
This icon is actually more properly called the "Hospitality of Abraham" (see Genesis 18:1-15). The appearance of the three angels to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre was a type of the Holy Trinity, not an appearance of the Holy Trinity itself. This type goes back to Early Christian art and has remained the most common Orthodox depiction of the Trinity.
New Testament Trinity
The New Testament Trinity, depicts the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit distinctly, and although far more familiar from Western models, is actually of Greek origin. Christ may be shown either as an adult, (in this case he is sitting to the right of his Father) or as an infant sitting on his Father's knees, which is the norm in early Greek depictions. This type is also called the Paternity icon, and is found from the 11th century onwards, although it did not become widespread in Orthodox art until after the Fall of Constantinople, under Western influence, when an adult Christ is the norm. The Father is painted as the Ancient of Days, a white-bearded man with a very special type of nimbus (it contains two rombic figures: one is red, another is blue, or is a triangle). The Holy Spirit is shown as a white dove with a halo of the same type as Father has. The dove may be placed between the Father and the Son (if they sit near each other at the same level), or the dove may be shown in a beam of light from the mouth of the Father, as if the Holy Spirit was just sent by Him.
It is interesting that in Russian Orthodoxy, depictions of God the Father are prohibited. However, when the movement of antitrinitrarians became strong in medieval Novgorod, a new type of iconography appeared: Spas Vethiy Denmi - The Savior Old with Days or Christ as the Ancient of Days. In this type of icon, Jesus Christ is depicted as an old white-haired man. The basis of this iconography is consubstantiality - the doctrine that Jesus and the Father are one. This very image of God the Father is used in New Testament Trinity icons; until the Great Synod of Moscow in 1667 it was a matter of theological debate whether the Ancient of Days from the Book of Daniel was Christ or God the Father. In the Western churches the Ancient of Days remains the basis and justification for depictions of God the Father, as made clear by, for example, a pronouncement by Pope Benedict XIV in 1745.
The Second Council of Nicea in 787 confirmed that the depiction of Christ was allowed because he became man; the situation regarding the Father was less clear. The usual Orthodox representation of the Trinity was through the "Old Testament Trinity" of the three angels visiting Abraham - said in the text to be "the Lord" (Genesis:18.1-15). However post-Byzantine representations similar to those in the West are not uncommon in the Greek world. The subject long remained sensitive, and the Russian Orthodox Church at the Great Synod of Moscow in 1667 finally forbade depictions of the Father in human form, although other Orthodox churches sometimes do not follow this ruling. The canon is quoted in full here because it explains the Russian Orthodox theology on the subject:
Chapter 2, §44: 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. And though David the prophet says, "From the womb before the morning star have I begotten Thee" (Ps.109:3), that birth was not fleshly, but unspeakable and incomprehensible. For Christ Himself says in the holy Gospel, "No man hath seen the Father, save the Son" (cf. John 6:46). And Isaiah the prophet says in his fortieth chapter: "To whom have ye likened the Lord? and with what likeness have ye made a similitude of Him? Has not the artificier of wood made an image, or the goldsmiths, having melted gold, gilt it over, and made it a similitude?"(40:18-19). In like manner the Apostle Paul says in the Acts (17:29), "Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold or silver or stone, graven by art of man's imagination." And John Damascene says: "But furthermore, who can make a similitude of the invisible, incorporeal, uncircumscribed and undepictable God? It is, then, uttermost insanity and impiety to give a form to the Godhead" (Orthodox Faith, 4:16). In like manner St. Gregory the Dialogist prohibits this. For this reason we should only form an understanding in the mind of Sabaoth, which is the Godhead, and of that birth before the ages of the Only-Begotten-Son from the Father, but we should never, in any wise depict these in icons, for this, indeed, is impossible. And the Holy Spirit is not in essence a dove, but in essence he is God, and "No man hath seen God", as John the Theologian and Evangelist bears witness (1:18) and this is so even though, at the Jordan at Christ's holy Baptism the Holy Spirit appeared in the likeness of a dove. For this reason, it is fitting on this occasion only to depict the Holy Spirit in the likeness of a dove. But in any other place those who have intelligence will not depict the Holy Spirit in the likeness of a dove. For on Mount Tabor, He appeared as a cloud and, at another time, in other ways. Furthermore, Sabaoth is the name not only of the Father, but of the Holy Trinity. According to Dionysios the Areopagite, Lord Sabaoth, translated from the Jewish tongue, means "Lord of Hosts". This Lord of Hosts is the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And although Daniel the prophet says that he beheld the Ancient of Days sitting on a throne, this should not be understood to refer to the Father, but to the Son, Who at His second coming will judge every nation at the dreadful Judgment.
The New Testament Trinity subject may be actually introduced into any icon where the Christ is shown: for this purpose the painter needs only to add the Father and the dove at the upper side of the icon.
The New Testament Trinity is not popular in official Orthodoxy in Russia nowadays, though it was popular in Novgorod earlier. Among Popovtsy Old Believers this type of an icon is very widespread, since the New Testament Trinity is depicted above any crucifixion icon (without the Son, since he is on the Cross in this case). The New Testament Trinity also appears on the wonder-working icon of Our Lady of Kursk (also without the Son, since in this case Mary holds him on her knees).
- Bigham, 89-98
- Bigham, 73-76
- The Tome of the Great Council of Moscow (1666-1667 A.D.), Ch. 2, 43-45; tr. Hierodeacon Lev Puhalo, Canadian Orthodox Missionary Journal
- Bigham, Steven, Image of God the Father in Orthodox Theology and Iconography, Studies in Orthodox iconography, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995, ISBN 1-879038-15-3, ISBN 978-1-879038-15-8, Google books
For more on the topic of the Holy Trinity in Orthodox iconography see George S. Gabriel, Mary: the Untrodden Portal of God and Forbidden Images.