Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Trinity with Three Faces, Fresco, c.1400, Antonio da Atri, c.1350-1433
The much quoted statement, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is not an ancient Chinese proverb and often not even true. A picture can not represent adequately images that come to mind while hearing words of the Twenty-third Psalm or the Sermon on the Mount. However, it is true that art sometimes can clarify ideas that can not be expressed in words and yet there are times also when neither words nor pictures are adequate. Early Christian artists had to invent or adapt a visual language that could communicate concepts that were difficult to explain through art or through words.
In the early Church, there were questions about how, or if, a depiction of God should (or could) be made in art; if so, what would the image be? After several centuries, God was depicted as a bearded father figure (possibly derived from the Ancient of Days mentioned in the Book of Daniel). A lamb often symbolized Jesus and a dove symbolized the Holy Spirit. As long as members of the Godhead were separate, artists did not have to deal with creating a composite image that represented all three. The three figures that appeared before Abraham were portrayed as the Trinity but they were shown as separate individuals. By placing them adjacent to each other they were seen as a visual unit. Official use of that form of Trinity was ended by the Pope in the eighteenth century but it continued in places such as the American Southwest.
Another attempt to depict the Trinity may be seen in the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta in Atri, Italy. Antonio da Atri’s fresco, “Trinity with Three Faces,” shows Christ standing and facing the viewer. His right arm is raised in a blessing and the left hand is holding a book. In order to depict Christ as part of the Trinity, Antonio has given the figure one body but three faces. Right and left profiles have been added to Jesus’ head. All three faces have radiating lines and halos. As a fashionable background, Antonio painted a late Gothic arch and decorative elements as a setting for the figure.
Multi-headed divinities existed in other religions and although this three-faced Trinity was accepted by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, it was ridiculed by Protestants. It was called the “Catholic Cerberus.” [In Greek mythology, Cerberus was the three-headed dog that guarded the gates of Hades.] As a consequence, in the sixteenth century the Pope ended use of the three-faced Trinity but the image remained in remote regions. Pope Innocent XII went further in the seventeenth century and ordered them all to be destroyed. The three-faced Trinity at the Basilica of Atri survived because it was not in sight. It and other frescos at the Basilica had been covered with plaster for fear their surfaces in some way could contribute to the spread of the Plague.
The statement, “A picture is worth a thousand words” is not an ancient proverb. It is derived from an early twentieth century American advertising slogan.
Hovak Najarian © 2013