In his excellent study on Christian iconography, Adolphe Didron carefully maps the clear evolution of the Trinities in both art and architecture. In the most primitive extant examples, symbols of the Godhead may include the hand of God reaching from the clouds, the cross, the lamb, or the dove. No paradigmatic Trinitarian representation exists until the 4th century, and no instances are to be found either in the catacombs or upon ancient Christian sacrophagi (Didron 35). Many of the earliest works that combine these symbols present them in vertical descent, with a hand representing God the Father, a dove representing the Holy Spirit, and the cross representing Christ, the Son. The order significantly communicates an elementary tenet of germinal Trinitarianism, the notion that Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and not the Son. This doctrinal position is still held by the Eastern Church while the Roman Church believes that the Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son. In any case, the earliest examples of Trinities are comprised of mere symbols.
During the 9th to 12th centuries, however, Trinities took on anthropomorphic form, and the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost assumed human attributes. For centuries, Christ had been depicted as a young man. Remarkably, the Father and Spirit were also portrayed as young men, essentially identical to the Son. In fact, it is often difficult to distinguish between the persons, undoubtedly an effort to harmonize the artwork with the Athanasian concept of the cosubstantiality of the members of the Trinity.
In reality, these artistic representations reveal the core contradiction of Trinitarian dogma, that One God exists as three persons. The clear corporal disconnectedness of the three in many examples of art and architecture exaggerates the concept of the Trinity and destroys the scriptural unity of the Godhead, presenting, instead, three gods with no apparent cohesion.
In some Trinities, the Father, who is elderly, supports the Son suspended on the cross. In these cases, the Spirit is most often figured by the dove and proceeds from the mouth of the Father. Similarly, illustrations of Christ’s baptism generally employ the same vertical declension and the dove.
The Trinities and the artists’ innovations also took other forms. The introduction of geometrical shapes, predominantly triangles and interlocked circles, emphasized the triplicity of persons, and three became an important number in Gothic architecture. The trefoil, the silhouette of the three interlocked circles, implicitly conveys the Trinity and appeared in church windows and arches.
Such misrepresentations of the Godhead metamorphosed into the monstrous with the amalgamation of the Trinity into a one-headed being with three faces, sometimes having three or four eyes and three mouths atop a single body. While such examples flourished and attempted to portray, at least tenuously, the unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit, Pope Urban VIII prohibited such Trinities in 1628 and ordered that examples be destroyed (Didron 61). Whether his anathemization was aesthetic or theological is historically unclear, but these Trinitarian representations stand in stark contrast to other examples where each person is completely individualized.
More disturbing are historical examples of Christian art in which Satan himself is depicted as a claw-footed, unholy trinity with three faces, often with three horns. Such pieces evidence the radical theological distortions of Trinitarianism and presents the devil as God’s equal opposite.
Of particular interest to modern Oneness believers is a 16th Century example of a three-faced Trinity, which includes an intricate schema using the inverted triangle capped by circles to represent the Trinity (Figure 2). The circles labeled Pater (Father), Filius (Son), and Spiritus Sanctus (Holy Spirit) are interpolated with the words “non est”, reading literally: “Father is not Son; Son is not Holy Spirit; Holy Spirit is not Father.” This is important because it was apparently created to rebut those who believed that the Father, Son, and Spirit were not personally distinct. There must have been Christians who were not making radical distinctions between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; otherwise, this theological message would not have been necessary.
Ultimately, artistic representations of the Trinity create images of a God divided and do not and indeed cannot preserve His unity. In all cases, three gods are figured, whether in symbol or person, revealing the impossible oxymoron of the underlying idea of a triune God. The inability of artists and architects to represent the complex doctrine without making an image of three gods further condemns the false notion of Trinitarian dogma and visually displays the ultimate departure of Trinitarian doctrine from essential monotheism of the ancient Jewish faith and the New Testament Apostolic Church.
Didron, Adolphe Napoleon. Christian Iconography: the History of Christian Art in the Middle Ages. Trans. E.J. Millington. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. New York: 1886.