God the Father in Orthodox Iconography

A recent online discussion renewed the perennial and controversial modern topic of God the Father in Orthodox Christian iconography, as a bearded ancient.

My former Scripture instructor in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia’s online Pastoral School, Fr. John Whiteford, has this excellent overview of the issue. It links to a further in-depth discussion of the background by the writer Vladimir Moss, which is not affected by the schismatic advocacy of some of his other writing.

I’d recommend reading both pieces, which illustrate complexity and nuances in the discussion, about which a book-length treatment here sums up the criticisms of Orthodox “Ancient of Days” iconography in much online discussion today.

Basically, the controversy has centered around whether portrayal of God the Father as the “Lord of Hosts” or “Ancient of Days” in much Orthodox iconography found in Eastern lands (particularly Russia but also in Greece in centuries following the Fall of Constantinople) is non-canonical or even heretical. Some view the Ancient of Days figure as being properly of Christ.

The issue involves whether the “nature” of God the Father is portrayed, when un-portrayable, or whether the figure of the Father as a Divine Person in the Trinity can be symbolized as seen by the Prophet Daniel in the Old Testament. The name “Ancient of Days” and with it “Lord of Hosts” is also identified with the Holy Trinity as a whole in Church Tradition.

An added aspect, I would add, is that the relationship being portrayed in such iconography, between the figure of our Lord God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, with our Lord the Holy Spirit, is, as in St. Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Holy Trinity “The Hospitality of Abraham,” not essentializing in nature, but within the bounds of Orthodox apophatic theology. However, the depiction of God the Father by nature was specifically prohibited by two local but pan-Orthodox councils of the Church in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Orthodox scholar Eric Jobe has offered a review of the issues, in which he concludes that “The One Essence of God cannot be depicted in a direct manner, but the idea of it may be referenced symbolically through these eidos [idea-depicted-as-symbol] icons.  Nevertheless, these icons remain on the cusp of canonical permissibility, and they should be treated with caution.” What Dr. Jobe calls eidos icons could also be considered including figures of theophanies in the Old Testament, such as the vision to Daniel of the Ancient of Days, most often interpreted by Church Fathers as typology of God the Father.

Holy Trinity Monastery’s temple in Jordanville NY has a beautiful icon of the Trinity with God the Father, and also another type of the same featured above the altar, which is visible in the photo below at the top behind the Cross. The ceiling iconography is especially breathtaking as part of a sequence related to the Trinity.

The sequence begins below with Jesus Christ in Divine Council with the Theotokos on His right and St. John the Forerunner (last of the Old Testament Prophets) on His left and other saints around with the Holy Spirit prominently above as a dove. Then above that the viewer sees a version of Rublev’s Hospitality of Abraham, in which the theophany figure of Christ bows to an angel as representing the Father as it is often interpreted. Then, on the high ceiling area, Jesus Christ as a child sits on the lap of God the Father, with the Holy Spirit as a dove in the middle. In a cultural age like ours in a “global West” bereft of strong symbols of Fatherhood, lifting one’s eyes in this sequence especially can catch a faithful viewer off-guard, in recognition of the mystery of the Trinity.

A number of icons with the depiction of the Ancient of Days have been wonder-working over the centuries, including the Kursk Root icon. Their beauty and miracle-working inform Orthodox Christian tradition. Truly, God’s ways are mysterious, and one can love and venerate such icons while being aware of the ultimate mystery of the Holy Trinity, communicated by canonical warnings, as being beyond human ken.

(The photo above was taken this past week on the Feast of St. Vladimir, on my unworthy first-year anniversary of ordination as a Deacon, with my mentor and friend Fr. Felipe Balingit, with whom I had the blessing to serve; you can see the beautiful image of God the Father right behind the Cross, with — not mainly visible due to the Cross– the figure of the child Jesus Christ in His lap and the Holy Spirit symbolized by a dove.)

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