If you talk to the “true believers” in modern Eastern Orthodoxy (who are often enthusiastic Protestant converts), they will frequently tell you that Russian Orthodoxy does not paint icons of God the Father shown as an old man. But that is just doctrinal theory, not the reality of Russian icon painting, and as you know, we deal in reality here rather than in theories or wishful thinking about icons.
The truth is that the painting of icons of God the Father as an old man has a history in the Russian Orthodox Church of at least some 600 years; such depictions became increasingly common, until by the 18th and 19th centuries there were countless icons in existence featuring God the Father. They are found in all the Eastern Orthodox countries, from Greece to Bulgaria and Serbia to Russia. They were (and are) seen in in churches, in monasteries, and of course in the home.
When the Council of Moscow decreed in 1667 that “the image of Lord Sabaoth shall no longer be depicted or made into an icon, because no one has seen Lord Sabaoth, that is, the Father, in the flesh,” it made not the slightest difference to icon painters or to Eastern Orthodox worshippers. They painted and venerated what their fathers had painted and venerated.
We need not go into all the theological quibbles over this matter, because our concern here is not with what this or that person thinks icon painters should have done, but with what they really did; and what they really did was to paint images of Lord Sabaoth — God the Father — in huge numbers over the centuries.
Today I would like to take a look at such an icon, which goes under the general name “The New Testament Trinity.”
The painter, however, has given this icon its own title, written at the top in condensed form, meaning in very decorative cyrillic calligraphy, with words abbreviated and some letters written in smaller form as superscription above the larger letters. In Russian this ornate style of writing is called Vyaz, from the verb meaning to join or tie together.
The inscription on this example, expanded to its full form (Russian font), looks like this:
И возшедшаго на небеса, и седяща одесную Отца
I Vozshedshago Na Nebesa, I Sedyashcha Odesnuiu Otsa
It is a line from the Simvol Verui — the “Symbol of Faith,” which is the Russian term for the Nicene Creed; it reads, ” And he ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right [hand] of the Father,” which perfectly describes what the icon depicts — Jesus sitting in Heaven at the right of God the Father (Gospod’ Savaof / Lord Sabaoth).
The Father is shown with his typical long beard and eight-pointed halo (termed a slava — a “glory” in this case). The eight points symbolize the seven days of Creation and an added eighth day — the Day of Eternity. The Holy Spirit is seen as a dove above the Father and Son, which is how he is described at the baptism of Jesus in the New Testament.
Above the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a gathering of archangels and angels. We see Michael (Mikhail), Gabriel (Gavriil), Uriel (Uriil), Yehudiel (Yegudiil), Selafiel (Salafiil), Raphael, and a number of others each identified only as “Angel of the Lord”
God the Father — Lord Sabaoth — holds a scroll, as we see in this closeup:
It is a Church Slavic quote from Ezekiel 33:11, and it says, “I do not want the death of the sinner, but that he should turn from his way and live.” In more modern form it is:
Не хочу смерти грешника, но чтобы грешник обратился от пути своего и жив был.
Here is an illustration from a menaion printed in Moscow under the direction of the “Holy Governing Synod” in the reign of Catherine the Great in 1784:
As you see, it depicts the Holy Spirit as a dove at the top of the circle, with Jesus on the left and “Lord Sabaoth” on the right — God the Father depicted as an old man.
By the way, aside from the fact that this illustration comes from a book authorized by the Holy Synod, the governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church from 1721-1918, it is also obvious that this illustration is not from an Old Believer book because it uses the IHC abbreviation for the name Jesus, something the Old Believers considered a sign of heresy, keeping to the traditional IC abbreviation.
So remember, as a student of icons, go with what painters actually painted, with historical reality, not with what religious enthusiasts say they should have painted.