If you have done any reading on the history of icons, you have probably come across this well-known 14th-century image of the Trinity, painted in the northern Russian city of Novgorod, once so famous as a wealthy trading center that it was called “Novgorod the Great.”
This icon type of God the Father seated on a throne, with Jesus as Immanuel (the youthful Christ) on his lap, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, is very common in Eastern Orthodoxy, and it is a “New Testament Trinity” type called Отечество — Otechestvo — meaning the “Fatherhood” or “Paternity.”
In addition to the basic elements of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, this type shows two seraphim (a category of angel) beside the throne, and the winged circles supporting the Father’s footstool that are another bizarre kind of angel called “Thrones.” At left, atop his pillar, is the Stylite (pillar-dweller) saint Daniel, and at right another Stylite (called a Stolpnik in Russian icons), Simeon. At lower right is an apostle.
But what I want to focus on today is the inscription at the top of the icon:
As you already know, if you have been reading here long, in icon inscriptions we often find little variants in spelling. This inscription is abbreviated, which as you also know is common in icon inscriptions. You can tell that by the lines above the words. Here is how it is written on the icon:
IС Т Ы ДУХЪ
Don’t be confused by the writer’s using a form of Ц (ts) that looks more like the letter Ч (ch); it is Ц that he intended.
Now we have to “un-abbreviate” the inscription, to write it in full:
ОТЕЦЬ I СЫИНЪ
I СВЯТЫЙ ДУХЪ
OTETS’ I SUIN”
I SVYATUIY DUKH”
OTETS means “Father”:
I (И) means “and”;
SUIN means “Son”;
And SVYATUIY DUKH means “Holy Spirit.”
So we can easily translate the inscription, keeping in mind that Church Slavic has no article “the,” as:
[The] FATHER AND [The] SON AND [The} HOLY SPIRIT
Or we could translate it quite literally as:
FATHER AND SON AND HOLY SPIRIT
It is not surprising to find God the Father (also called “Lord Sabaoth” in icons) frequently depicted as an old and bearded man. People have always visualized their gods in human form.
In the Septuagint Greek Bible used by the early Christians (and by Greek Orthodoxy) we find these words in the Book of Genesis:
καὶ εἶπεν ὁ θεός ποιήσωμεν ἄνθρωπον κατ’ εἰκόνα ἡμετέραν καὶ καθ’ ὁμοίωσιν…
Kai eipen ho theos poiesomen anthropon kat’ eikona hemeteran kai kath’ homoiosin…
“And God said, let us make man after our image and after the likeness…”
So Adam was believed to be an eikona — an image — an icon — of God. And so God was thought to have two arms, two legs, and in fact to be in the same form as a human. And of course in the Middle East in biblical times, humans had kings ruling over them, and so God the Father was visualized as a king sitting on his throne in heaven, which in those days was simply the sky.
Of course later religious thinkers “spiritualized” this notion to mean that humans were somehow in the “spiritual” likeness of God, but that is not what the text originally meant. It meant simply that humans were given the same form God had. And notice that Genesis says “Let US make man in OUR image.” This was later given a Trinitarian interpretation, but it is likely that originally it was simply a leftover of the days when the Hebrews believed that there was more than one divine being in the sky, just as in the Babylonian creation myth, humans were created by the gods. In Chapter 5 of Septuagint Genesis, we read:
αὕτη ἡ βίβλος γενέσεως ἀνθρώπων ᾗ ἡμέρᾳ ἐποίησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν Αδαμ κατ’ εἰκόνα θεοῦ ἐποίησεν αὐτόν
ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ ἐποίησεν αὐτοὺς καὶ εὐλόγησεν αὐτούς καὶ ἐπωνόμασεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτῶν Αδαμ ᾗ ἡμέρᾳ ἐποίησεν αὐτούς
ἔζησεν δὲ Αδαμ διακόσια καὶ τριάκοντα ἔτη καὶ ἐγέννησεν κατὰ τὴν ἰδέαν αὐτοῦ καὶ κατὰ τὴν εἰκόνα αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐπωνόμασεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Σηθ
“This is the book of the generation/origin of men in the day when God made Adam, after the image (eikona) of God he made him.
Male and female he made them and blessed them, and called his name Adam the day he made him.
And Adam lived two hundred and thirty years, and begot according to his form and according to his image (eikona), and called his name Seth.”
So “man” was made in the form/image of God, and Seth was in the form/image of his father Adam. It meant simply the physical appearance, the physical likeness. So the “image” of God (Greek eikona, Hebrew tselem) meant simply that Adam was made to look like God, and Seth, Adam’s son, was born looking like Adam. It is not talking about abstractions such as a “spiritual image” that later were introduced into the matter. It means simply that God looked like Adam (a head, two arms, two legs, etc.) and Adam looked like God, just as Seth looked like Adam.
People are always trying to “update” biblical stories to make them seem more compatible with what we learn of the world, but really the mental world of the Bible and of Christianity in the days before the advancement of science was quite primitive and folkloric. Until fairly recent times Russian believers held the date of Creation to be only a few thousand years ago, and no doubt some still do.
The “Fatherhood” (“Paternity”) type existed as early as the 11th century. This example in the Panagia Koumbelidiki Church at Kastoria in Greece is from the latter half of the 1200s:
It shows the Father as the “Ancient of Days” with white hair, and three bars of the cross visible in his halo, usually an identifying characteristic of Jesus. But here Jesus is shown in adult form on the bosom of the Father, holding a circle containing the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The inscription on the fresco image leaves no doubt as to its identity, though the form of the icon and inscription do hint at some confusion as to the precise theology of the “Ancient of Days.”
I[εσου]C X[ριστο]C Ὁ Θ[εο]C ἩΜΩΝ
Ὁ ΠΑΤΗΡ ὙΙΟC ΚΑΙ ΠΝΕΥΜΑ ΤΟ ΑΓΙΟΝ
Iesous Khristos ho Theos hemon
ho Pater, Huios, kai Pneuma to Agion
“Jesus Christ our God,
the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
The earliest known depiction of the Trinity, however (though not in the “Otechestvo/Paternity” form), is that found on the so-called “Dogmatic Sarcophagus” from the time of the Emperor Constantine and the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea — circa 320-350. It was found during work at the Church of San Paolo fuori le Mura (St. Paul Outside the Walls) in Rome, in the 19th century. The “Trinity” portion depicts the three persons of the Trinity as identical bearded men at the creation of Eve, with God the Father distinguished only by the fact that he is the one seated on the throne. You will find the image here:
The “Trinity” image is the first at upper left.