Two Fourth-Century Sarcophagi Misinterpreted Christological, Not Trinitarian

The Thesis

The question is whether or not the Catholic worldview—as it relates to anthropomorphic images of God, God the Father, the Holy Spirit and the Trinity—influenced the discoverers of the sarcophagi studied here—the Dogmatic Sarcophagus and the Sarcophagus of the Trinity-Spouses—in interpreting the images as Trinitarian. The answer defended here is “yes.” We hope to show that the “classical” Trinitarian interpretation of the images is not correct, and, in fact, their proper interpretation is Christological and not Trinitarian: the seated, bearded man is Christ the Ancient of Days, not God the Father, surrounded by Peter and Paul along with images of the historical Christ thrown back into scenes of the Creation. Those scholars who have rejected the Trinitarian interpretation have rightly done so noting that the first three-man images of the Trinity did not appear until the 12th century. The same logic leads to the conclusion that the seated figure is not God the Father. The Christological interpretation solves both theological and art historical difficulties associated with these images.

Fig1 The Dogmatic Sarcophagus, Vatican Museum, Rome, 325–350.1

Fig1.1 A Zoom on Fig1, the Upper-Left-Hand Section, the Dogmatic Sarcophagus, Vatican Museum, Rome, 325–350.

Fig2 The Sarcophagus of the Trinity-Spouses, Museum of the Antiquities, Arles, France, 325–350.2

Fig2.1 A Zoom on Fig2, Creation of Adam and Eve, the Upper-Left-Hand Corner.

Fig2.2 A Zoom on Fig2, Adam and Eve Receiving Their Tasks after the Fall, the Middle of the Lid.

Fig2.3 A Zoom on Fig2, Cain and Abel Offering the Sacrifices to the Lord, the Right End of the Lid.

I. Introduction

The first sarcophagus (F1) was discovered in Rome, 1838, and the second (F2) in Arles, France, 1974; both, especially the first one, have been interpreted as showing the first, direct, anthropomorphic images of the Trinity. In examining the two zooms of the upper-left-hand sections of the sarcophagi (F1.1, F2.1 and F2.2), it is not difficult to see why that interpretation was made. As for Sarcophagus1 (F1), the three figures, one sitting in front of two small humans—Adam and Eve, she who was taken from the Adam’s rib—seem almost obvious. Sarcophagus 2 (F2) created a slight problem because, instead of three figures, there were four. It was not as easy to blend four figures into a Trinity, but due to the similarity between the two sarcophagi, the problem did not seem unsurmountable at the time. So the “traditional” interpretation, that of two anthropomorphic representations of the Trinity, has been maintained. It is true that some scholars have contested the Trinitarian interpretation, questioning whether the “man” behind the enthroned figure could really be the Holy Spirit, but no one has questioned the identity of the seated figure. He is God the Father, “obviously.”

II. The Problem

First of all, the very notion of portraying God the Father and the Holy Spirit in anthropomorphic images has always been for me a source of unease. In Christian antiquity, Trinitarian representations have always been symbolic up to about the year 1000: a hand from the sky (F3) or a chair throne in a Hetimasia image (F4) represented the Father; a dove (F4) or tongues of fire (F5), the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, I am anchored in the orthodox, patristic vision of God’s essential invisibility and, therefore, his unrepresentability. This vision was dogmatically expressed by the 7th Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II, 787, and buttressed by the doctors of the icon—Sts. John of Damascus, Theodore Studite and Nicephorus of Constantinople: the only possible iconic—portrait—image of God is that of the incarnate Logos-Son of God the Father, Jesus Christ: one that shows the Second Person of the Trinity in the visible aspects of his human nature. No other image of God is legitimate. Direct, anthropomorphic images of the Father, the Holy Spirit or the Trinity are, according to the dogma of the image, iconographic heresies. It is not difficult, then, to understand my unease on seeing two sculpted sarcophagus images, dated from 325 to 350, interpreted as anthropomorphic images of the Trinity.

Up until the present, my unease remained “on the back burner,” but I have recently decided to examine the question more deeply and to determine whether the “classical” interpretation, that of the first anthropomorphic images of the Trinity, is correct or not. The accepted explanation seems at first obvious. The three figures in front of a small, sleeping Adam from whom the Creator has taken a rib to form a little Eve easily lend themselves to the “natural” interpretation: the Creator Trinity models man—male and female—from the earth. If this interpretation of the two sarcophagi is correct, then these scenes are indeed the first, anthropomorphic images of the Trinity.

Some might say, “OK, so what is the fuss? We have known such Trinitarian images for centuries. Now two precursors have popped up from the early 4th century. Maybe more will be found. So we rewrite the history of Christian art, at least that of the images of God, and move on. No big deal.”

It is, however, a big deal because we are dealing with the dogma of the image defined by an Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II, which is recognized as authoritative for both the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. In addition, the interpretation of the two carved scenes brings to light a major ecumenical problem: the self-understanding of each Church in relation to the other, a major problem in the dialogues undertaken to heal the schism between the Christian East and West, Catholic and Orthodox. It may not be obvious how similar stone carvings on two early 4th‑century sarcophagi could have such far-reaching importance, but I hope to show why this is so.

Each Church sees itself united to the faith of the apostles in two different ways: the Roman Catholic Church, by loyalty to the papacy and the interpretations of the apostolic deposit that the Pope infallibly proclaims; the Orthodox Church, by loyalty to the faith of the apostles as unfailingly made explicit by the ecumenical councils and the tradition of the fathers. The question of the possibility of creating an image of the Trinity, of God the Father and/or the Holy Spirit, is one of the highest dogmatic importance. Who has remained faithful to the faith of the apostles? Those who accept the decision of Pope Benedict XIV to allow such images but not to encourage them, or those who accept the decision of Nicaea II that the only possible image of God is that of the incarnate Son Logos Jesus Christ? The rest of this article will show the author’s point of view.

III. The Dogma3 of the Image

When speaking about the so-called Trinitarian images on the Dogmatic Sarcophagus and other such Christian representations, we are in the domain of what I believe to be the Church’s dogma of the image, a dogma accepted by the Orthodox Church and, in theory, by the Roman Catholic Church as well. And as with any other Christian dogma, when talking about the subject it dealt with, we are bound to take into account the Church’s vision of the matter as defined by an Ecumenical Council. No serious theologian would speak about the Trinity, for example, and neglect the definition of the Nicaea I, 325, which states that orthodox Christians must speak in terms of one essence (ousia) and three Persons (hypostaseis). Or, in dealing with Christology, anyone who refused or neglected to see in Jesus, one (hypostasis) and two natures (physeis) would be considered to be outside the limits of orthodox Christianity.

The same is true for im4ages. The ecumenical Church, both East and West, defined the way God can and cannot be represented in an image as well as the vocabulary necessary to speak about those images. After all, that was the basic question in the Iconoclastic Controversy, 730–843: What is the proper, orthodox, way of representing God in an image? In short, the Doctors of the image—Sts. John of Damascus, Theodore Studite and Nicephoros of Constantinople—and the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II 787, said that the only permissible image of God is that of the incarnate Son Logos of God the Father, and this on the basis of the incarnation. He who was invisible and without any possible created image before the incarnation became visible as the historical Jesus, and, therefore, being fully man, he could be represented according to the visible aspects of his full humanity. However, since the Father and the Holy Spirit remained unincarnate, they could not be represented iconographically since they have no visible aspects. They can only be represented symbolically, a hand coming out of a cloud, an empty throne, etc., or a dove, tongues of fire, etc.

It is a basic assumption that dogmas do not create or define something NEW. As for the incarnation, Christians have always believed that “the fullness of divinity dwelt in him,” (Jn 1:14) and other New Testament statements express the same belief. What the Council of Nicaea I, for example, did was to fashion a new vocabulary and way of speaking—in response to Arius’s statements that the Son Logos, and therefore, Jesus, was a creature and not fully God. The Council countered Arius by refining and restating the Apostolic faith as contained in the New Testament.

The same process stands behind the dogma of the image. Interpreting the 2nd commandment as prohibiting idolatrous images, but not all images, and affirming the long-standing practice and tradition of making iconic images of the persons of Jesus, the saints and the angels, but only symbolic images of the Trinity, the Father and the Holy Spirit, the Fathers of the Council, along with the Doctors of the image, established the vocabulary and way of speaking about images, about the unspoken tradition of the Church since the Apostles: the only acceptable image of God is one of the incarnate Son Logos, Jesus, and that right-believing Christians give worship, latreia, to God alone but can give veneration, proskynesis, to honorable and respectable objects and persons, including created images.

IV. Christian Images as a Theological Art

One of the presuppositions underlying the Christian artistic tradition and the dogma of the image is the following: images, at least for the first millennium of the Christian history, showed forth the Church’s theological vision, and this is true for Western and well as Eastern Christianity. If this is true, then Nicaea II did not create a new doctrine or practice but only codified what had been the previously unexpressed and unwritten practice and belief about images. So now we come to the interpretation of the Dogmatic Sarcophagus and other images supposedly of the Trinity, the Father, or the Holy Spirit, not as symbols, but as anthropomorphic, iconic images of their Persons.

If we place the so-called image of the Trinity found on the Dogmatic Sarcophagus in the context of the dogma of the image, we run up against an artistic problem: there are no securely identifiable iconic images of the Trinity as three men during the first 1,000 years of the Church’s history. If we accept the traditional interpretation of the three-man image of the Dogmatic Sarcophagus, we run into the problem of explaining why, during a short period 330 to 400, Christians made very explicit images of the Trinity, why those images disappeared for the next several centuries and why they surfaced “again” in the medieval, Latin West where they took root and flourished. As far as I have been able to determine, none of the authors I have noted have given a satisfactory answer to this problem. Many, however, have noted it.

Following the art history problem, we have the theological context. Let us assume—I say assume, but art historians do agree—that there were no three-man images of the Trinity, leaving aside for the moment the Dogmatic Sarcophagus, etc., anywhere in the Christian East or West. Is there a reason for that, or is it just accidental? Obviously, the point of view expressed here claims that there was a theological reason for it, a reason which was expressed by Nicaea II, but which had remained basically unexpressed up to that time: no iconic images of the Trinity, the Father or the Holy Spirit are possible because there is nothing visible about them to be painted; therefore, the only possible images of God are those of the incarnate Son Logos, Jesus. If we bracket the images of the Dogmatic Sarcophagus, etc., we can see that the theological vision of Nicaea II had indeed been adhered to, without knowing it, during the first millennium, both East and West. At least, there are no images to contradict this assertion. A three-man images of the Trinity in the years 325–350 would have been in sharp contrast with the art and theological vision in which they appeared.

As we see from Christian art, all through the first 1,000 years of Christian history, images were an expression of a Christological, theological point of view. Jesus the Christ appears everywhere, in different forms, according to his age or context: images of Old Testament events, of the New Testament events and of eschatological events. It is Jesus, in various forms, that we see represented. The most obvious element or sign used to identify Jesus is a cross in the halo around his head, though this does not appear in all early images; other signs or characteristics indicate that he is being represented. In medieval images of the Creation, even on cathedrals such as Rouen (F9, F9.1, F9.2, F9.3, F9.4, F9.5, F9.6, F9.7)5, Reims, Chartres (F10, F10.1, F10.2, F10.3, F10.4, F10.5, F10.6)6 etc., it is Jesus the Son Logos who is represented as the Creator. Although everyone recognizes that the Creation is a Trinitarian act—the Father orders, the Son executes and the Holy Spirit perfects and sanctifies—the actual “doer” is the Son Logos, and so it is he who is shown in the Creation images of medieval cathedrals, Bible illuminations (F11, F12, F13, F14), mosaics, etc. Is not his exclusive presence a manifestation of the dogma of the image? We claim that it is indeed the case.

How, some may ask, is it possible to show Jesus in Creation scenes when “Jesus” had not become incarnate until, let us say, the year 1? Another theological principle that underlies the dogmatic and artistic vision of the first half of Christian history is that the theophanies of the Old Testament, where God speaks or makes himself visible, are manifestations of the Son Logos, Jesus in the incarnation. Christians East and West shared the vision that “and these very Scriptures speak about me!” (Jn 5:39) The Father in the Spirit acted through his Word. So when God appeared to Moses and spoke to him, who in fact did Moses hear? It was God the Word, the Son Logos, who said to Moses in answer to Moses’s question, “Who shall I say you are?” The answer came back, “I am the Existing one” or in Greek O Ω N. And these are precisely the letters found in Jesus’s cruciform halo. That is not an accident. The Church put those letters there precisely to affirm the theological vision that the One who spoke to Moses and this Jesus are the same Person, the divine Son Logos. So then, using the only possible image of God, that of Jesus, the Church, through her artists, projected the image of the Incarnate One back into the anthropomorphic manifestations of God in Old Testament, interpreting them as prefigurations of the incarnation.

On the basis of the preceding, what can we say, then, of the traditional interpretation of the three-man image on the Dogmatic Sarcophagus? We say that a Trinitarian interpretation of the three men is an impossibility on the basis of the theological worldview in which Christians and Christian artists lived during the first 1,000 years of Church history, both East and West. Some scholars have rejected the Trinitarian interpretation precisely on those grounds, and they are right. However, even though these scholars have reinterpreted the three-man image in various was, nearly all of them have kept God the Father as the real Creator, giving a secondary place to the Son Logos. But if we set that interpretation into the worldview of Christians of the time, we see that an anthropomorphic image of the Father is equally impossible. Christology, and not Trinitarian theology, is the key to the problem of the Dogmatic Sarcophagus image, and other such images.

V. Is There a “View from Nowhere”? 7

There is a philosophical and scientific debate going on about whether it is possible to examine something, anything, from a totally objective point of view, that is, a “view from nowhere.” Some say, “yes”; some say, “no.” Those who say “no” claim that everything humans observe and interpret is done from within a worldview based on certain principles and assumptions which may or may not be acknowledged. Whether humans can observe and interpret phenomena from ABSOLUTELY nowhere, outside of all worldviews, is the question, but in most areas, the human ability to give meaning to a thing most definitely takes place from within a worldview. I personally lean toward the “no” side where there is no such thing as objectivity. What saves us from total subjectivity in scholarly and scientific research, in my view, is critical thinking. Even though we all view things from some point of view, we can, nonetheless, apply our critical minds to questions and seek answers from within our acknowledged “bubble.”

This principle of “no view from nowhere” is quite clearly at work in the question of the interpretation of the images on the two sarcophagi. What was the worldview of those who discovered the sarcophagi and proclaimed them to be the first anthropomorphic images of the Trinity? Sarcophagus 1 (F1) was discovered in Rome, 1838, and Sarcophagus 2 (F2), in Arles, France, 1974. The images in the upper-left-hand-corners were interpreted in the light of a Roman Catholic, and even to an extent Protestant, view of Christian art that, for nearly 1,000 years, had become familiar and accustomed to anthropomorphic images of God the Father, of even the Holy Spirit—to a lesser degree—and of the Trinity. (F6) Although in the medieval Roman Catholic world, such images were contested from within, Pope Benedict XIV settled the question once and for all in 1745 when he decided, reluctantly, to approve anthropomorphic images of God the Father—permitting but not recommending or encouraging them. The Holy Spirit continued to be represented by a dove, for the most part.8

It is not difficult to imagine how Roman Catholic and other exegetes, on seeing the 1838 sarcophagus in Rome, naturally leaned toward a Trinitarian interpretation. Seeing the Holy Spirit represented as a man behind God the Father, though unusual, could be explained by the fact that such images were produced at the beginning of the Christian artistic tradition and therefore could be seen as an unsuccessful experiment. The discovery of the second sarcophagus in 1974, being so similar to the one found 1838—both probably from the same workshop in Rome—simply confirmed the correctness of the Trinitarian interpretation. The fact that there were four figures in the 1974 sarcophagus was not an insurmountable obstacle to seeing the three other figures as the Trinity. These images were, therefore, proclaimed, even still today, to be the first anthropomorphic images of the Trinity in Christian history.

However, if those sarcophagi are taken out of the 2nd-millennial, medieval, Western, Latin worldview on the question and placed in the worldview of the people who created them, it will be obvious that the traditional, Trinitarian interpretation, as we have said above, would have been impossible. The conclusion is obvious. The interpreters of these images in the 19th and 20th centuries are guilty of a very basic methodological error: interpreting something from the past in terms of present-day standards. They simply misinterpreted the images.

So, having said that the traditional, Trinitarian interpretation is erroneous, I now have the task of reinterpreting the images in terms, as I claim, of the ambiance, worldview, context and atmosphere in which the sarcophagus images were produced.

VI. The Christological Interpretation of the Three-Man Trinity on Two 4th-Century Sarcophagi

Earlier in this study, we noted that those who reject the traditional Trinitarian interpretation of the Dogmatic Sarcophagus and of the Sarcophagus of the Trinity‑Spouses did so because the first undeniable example of such an image dates to 1180, Strasburg (F6). A three-man Trinitarian image from 325 to 350, 800 years before the uncontested phenomenon appeared, is simply not credible. This is even more true when we realize that the theological mindset for the first thousand years of Christian history, in both the East and West, was strongly Christological, seeing the theophanies of the Old Testament as manifestations of the pre-incarnate Logos who would subsequently become the historical Jesus of Nazareth. They were and are, therefore, perfectly correct to reject the Trinitarian interpretation of these sarcophagi. All divine figures on the sarcophagi are therefore to be seen as one or another form of the divine Logos Christ.

It is well known in paleoChristian art that Jesus was represented in various forms, some of which are due to stylistic considerations: beardless youth vs. adult bearded Semitic man. Other differences, however, are due to the fact that the incarnate Logos was born and grew to adulthood as any other human being. He therefore passed through various stages from Emmanuel, the baby Jesus, through his appearance as a 12-year-old boy in Jerusalem with the doctors in the Temple to mature manhood in the gospel texts. So it is not surprising then that in the early centuries, when Jesus’s typical characteristics had not yet been codified in what today we call the icon, there was great variety in his representation.

In this study, however, we are not so concerned with “stylistic” variations as with those reflecting theological expressions. So we see Mary and the baby Jesus receiving the Wisemen. The mother-and-child image was one of the first to simply state that the Logos had become a child. That was sufficient, at the time, to proclaim the incarnation. We also see Jesus—young or mature, “beautiful” or rugged, bearded or unbearded—represented in scenes from the New Testament while he performed various miracles. These representations do not create theological problems even though the Church will eventually reject the youthful Greek image for the more rugged, Semitic model, and this is based on the need to represent Jesus in a way that most clearly reflects the historical reality. He was in fact an adult, Jewish man and not an adolescent Greek.

The theological problems arise when we have clear images of the historical Jesus, beardless, in situations that are not historical events of the New Testament: the Creation of Adam and Eve. Putting the “historical” Jesus—a “beautiful,” adolescent Greek—into a “non-historical” scene is explained by the Christological theological worldview of Christians at the time. Prefiguring the decision of Nicaea II, ancient Christians could only represent God (the Word) as the incarnate Logos, Jesus of Nazareth, so they retrojected the New Testament image of Jesus into the Creation event. His image of an adult man is also projected into images of Revelations.

What is to be said about the bearded man seated on the throne, identified by many as God the Father? It is a rather strange doctrine of the Trinity if only two Persons of that Trinity are shown. Rejecting a Trinitarian interpretation solves one problem, but maintaining a “paternal” interpretation causes another, or rather two: no images of the Father exist before the Western Middle Ages, and God, the Trinity of three Persons, represented by only two of the three seems unbalanced to say nothing of a possible iconographic heresy. The Christological interpretation, however, eliminates the problems.

We must ask, however: How is the enthroned, bearded man a representation of Christ? Here we get into the problem behind all representations of God the Father as shown in medieval and later images of the Trinity and in illustration of Old Testament events. The classical justification for images of God the Father is founded on an interpretation of the Ancient of Days in Daniel. (Dn 7:9-22)

Who is the Ancient of Days? He is seated on a throne and has features of an old man. He is “obviously,” according to some, a manifestation of God the Father who receives the One-like-a-son-of-man clearly identified as Jesus the Son of Man. On the basis of this “paternal” interpretation of the Ancient of Days, all images of the Father are theologically justified since what has become visible can be represented in images. Therefore, any image of an old, bearded man sitting on a throne is seen to be the Ancient of Days and, receiving before him One‑like-a-son-of-man, he is God the Father.

According to this interpretation, divine theophanies in the Old Testament are not solely of the Logos, but can sometimes be God the Father, sometimes God the Holy Spirit, sometimes the Trinity. Those who accept this interpretation stand on the opinion of St. Augustine of Hippo who did not follow the Christological interpretation of Old Testament theophanies. The Latin West eventually accepted Augustine’s interpretation, abandoning the Christological consensus patrum and Nicaea II’s dogma of the image, and began producing direct images of the Father and the Trinity.

We will not here go into the argumentation against the “paternal” interpretation of the Ancient of Days which has already been presented in The Image of God the Father and Who Is the Ancient of Days?9 After biblical, patristics, liturgical and artistic investigations, the conclusion of that study is that the Ancient of Days is in fact the eschatological Judge who is none other, according to the Scriptures, than Christ the Lord at the Second Coming. The two figures—the Ancient of Days receiving the One-like-a-son-of-man—are not therefore two different Persons of the Trinity, but two manifestations of the Logos: the Ancient of Days as the Christ in Glory, the eschatological Judge, and the One-like-a-son-of-man is Christ in his humble, earthly, incarnation who receives from the Ancient of Days the eternal Kingdom. We have therefore a double representation of one divine Person of the Trinity and not two distinct Persons. This Christological interpretation of Daniel’s vision preserves not only the consensum patrum that Old Testament theophanies are of the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, but also the image dogma of Nicaea II: the only possible image of God is that of the incarnate Word, Jesus the Christ.

The bearded figure on the throne in the two aforementioned sarcophagi is not God the Father but Christ the Ancient of Days, the eschatological Judge of Revelations/pre-eternal, pre-incarnational Logos accompanied by another image of the historical Jesus thrown back into the Creation scene. Although there is nothing in the images themselves or in patristic literature that overtly supports this interpretation, subsequent images in Christian history will in fact show Jesus as the Ancient of Days along with other images of him, often as Emmanuel (F24). So we have on the sarcophagi, a double manifestation of the Logos involved in the Creation of Adam and Eve or with Cain and Abel.

What of the two images of the Christ Logos side by side on the Trinity-Spouses Sarcophagus in Arles? Are we right to interpret the two figures as Christ the Ancient of Days and the historical Christ thrown back into the Creation scene? We note, first of all, that the two figures are a representation of Dn 7:9—13. The Ancient of Days was sitting and One-like-a-son-of-man came up to him. If our interpretation of the Ancient of Days and the One-like-a-son-of-man is correct, that is, that they are two forms of Christ Logos, then we have a scriptural foundation for the image. It is not unusual to have two or more images of Christ, in different forms side by side. (F7.1, F18—symbolic and iconic representation—F26, F26.1, F30, F30.1, F30.2) There are in fact many other images with several forms of the Logos together.

Jane E. Rosenthal, in her article “Three Drawings in an Anglo-Saxon Pontificial: Anthroplomophic Trinity or Threefold Christ?,” (F31.1, F31.2F31.3) asks the same question as does this study, but about other images. Three Anglo-Saxon images (969–980s) in the Sherburne Pontifical have traditionally been interpreted as the Trinity. She argues that in fact they are images of three aspects of Christ. If she is correct, it will not be the first time that three figures have been mistakenly interpreted as the Trinity. Even though the Anglo-Saxon images and the Dogmatic Sarcophagus images are about 600 years apart, they have a point in common. They we both identified as three-man Trinitarian images in the middle of the 19th century. The first in Rome, 1838 and the second in England, 186810, when such images of the Trinity in Christian antiquity were thought to be completely normal. We know, should know, better today.

Another study11 supports our contention that Christological images in the first millennium have been misinterpreted as Trinitarian. Kantorowicz argues that many psalter illustrations (F32.1, F32.2, F32.3, F32.4, F32.5), especially those for Psalm 109:1, “Of David. A psalm. The LORD says to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’” have been misinterpreted. The traditional interpretation of the illustrations is that God the Father speaks to God the Son, but that interpretation, as Kantorowics notes, runs into many of the objections we have noted here. He argues that the two images are in fact doubles of Christ as the Son in Glory and the Son of Man, illustrating the divine and human aspects of Christ. It is only later in the medieval period, when direct images of the Trinity became acceptable that these Christ doubles became distinguished into the Father and the Son with a dove added to fill out a Trinitarian image and interpretation. (F33) The artist, however, only added to the confusion of the figures by putting a cruciform halo on the dove. The two Christ figures naturally had cruciform haloes, but when they were distinguished into God the Father and God the Son, the artist kept the cruciform haloes and for consistency put one on the dove as well. The only problem, he thereby created an iconographic heresy. A cruciform halo means that that person was crucified, so instead of having a double Christ with cruciform haloes, perfectly correct, we now have all three Persons of the Trinity having been crucified.

What then do we say about the two figures that surround either Christ the Ancient of Days on the Dogmatic Sarcophagus or Christ the Ancient of Days and Christ the historical Jesus on the Sarcophagus of the Trinity-Spouses? If we compare their physiognomies to other clear images of Peter and Paul, we will see great resemblance, and that is in fact what we propose: these two figures are the two princes of the apostles who have also been thrown back into the Creation scene. We also see them in many other paleoChristian images. (F15, F16, F16.1, F17, F18, F19, F20, F20.1, F21, F22, F23, F24, F27, F28, F29, F29.1) And with the Wisemen scene on the lower levels, we have a triple manifestation of the divine Logos: Ancient of Days, Emmanuel, and Christ the Wonderworker. We illustrate our interpretation below.

The Dogmatic Sarcophagus

The Trinity-Spouses Sarcophagus

So, in these two sarcophagi alone, we have 5 of the 7 forms that the Logos-Son-Jesus Christ takes in paleoChristian art:

  1. The pre-eternal Logos as Ancient of Days in the moment of Creation;
  2. The historical Jesus thrown back to the moment of Creation;
  3. The pre-eternal Logos as the Ancient of Days receiving Cain and Abel’s offerings;
  4. The historical Jesus as Emmanuel;
  5. The historical Jesus preforming miracles;
  1. The young, beardless Jesus as eschatological Judge (F25)
  2. Jesus the Ancient of Days as the eschatological Judge (F17)

VII. Ockham’s Razor

As if the arguments presented above are not sufficient to establish the thesis of this study, Master William of Ockham has provided us with his razor which is very useful here. Simply stated, Ockham’s Razor is an interpretive principle that says that where there is a controversy with several solutions, the simplest one has the best chance of being true. If, to resolve the problem, it is necessary to make additional assumptions that themselves have to be examined and evaluated, then a solution which requires no further assumptions and which fits elegantly with the data, is more likely to be the right one. Ockham’s Razon does not ensure that the simplest answer is in fact the best, but it gives greater weight and probability to the simplest one, making the more complicated ones less likely.

So let us apply Ockham’s Razor to our problem: The Creation images on the two main sarcophagi studied, are they the first images of the Trinity, and/or God the Father in the Christian artistic tradition? Those who answer “yes” are in addition required to answer several questions:

  • Why is it that those images, so interpreted, appeared at the beginning of the 4th century, then disappeared and finally reappeared eight centuries later when they took root, and flourished?
  • Why is there no confirmation or references in the literature of the time to such images or the possibility of their being made?
  • Why does a supposedly Trinitarian image stand out like a sore thumb in the inventory of ancient Christian images?
  • How, for those who reject the Trinitarian interpretation but affirm the seated figure to be God the Father, do they explain the fact that such images do not reappear with theological justifications for another eight or so centuries?
  • How can the advocates of the Trinity/God the Father interpretation explain the fact that an Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II, 787, along with the Doctors of the Christian image, proclaimed that the only legitimate image of God is that of the incarnate Logos, Jesus Christ, if some other kinds of divine images had previously existed and could presumably have still existed during the Iconoclastic period?
  • How could Nicaea II affirm the statement of Pope Gregory II to Leo III, to the effect that “Why, then, do we make no representation of God the Father? The divine nature cannot be represented. If we had seen Him, as we have the Son, we could also make an image of Him.”12

Of course, many theologians and artists who support images of the Trinity and God the Father can say that there is no essential link between the theological worldview of a time and the images produced at that time. Such a point of view, however, breaks the link that is a fundamental principle of this study: verbal and written theology is seen to be reflected in the art produced to express that theology. If Christian art and Christian theology are two different and separate spheres of activity, so that they both exist and develop in isolation from each other, then the problem we are discussing here does not exist. Christian images, then, developed according to their own inherent principles, or perhaps according to none at all, and Christian thinking—preaching and writing—did the same thing in its own sphere.

If we apply Ockham’s Razor to our question, we see that the Christological interpretation of the so-called Trinitarian images is the simplest and most elegant and that it eliminates a theological and artistic discussion that fits quite nicely and naturally into the historical situation of western, medieval times when, in fact, images of the Trinity and God the Father emerged and flourished, provoking as well theological discussions.

The prime motivation of this study is not simply to contribute to an intellectual and art historical discussion that involves some obscure 4th-century images which have no bearing on Christian life in general or on the Christian worldview in particular. The purpose is in fact to defend and promote a much wider and deeper element of the Church’s Holy Tradition: the Gospel is preached in two forms, that is, not only in written and spoken words but also in images. It is the claim of this study that the essential link between word and image has existed from the beginning of the Christian artistic tradition and in addition that Nicaea II and the authoritative Doctors of the image proclaimed that Christian images represented the Church’s vision of salvation in lines and colors. Today, we call these images icons. Therefore, anthropomorphic images of the Trinity or of God the Father, supposedly found on the two major sarcophagi studied here, run counter to the universal dogmatic vision, both East and West, that existed during the first thousand years of Christian history. I have undertaken this study precisely to support and defend that ecumenical tradition that affirms the essential intertwining of preaching in both words and images.

Annex 1 and 2 available in the downloadable document.

1 “The ‘Dogmatic’ Sarcophagus

This large sarcophagus, created by an eminent figure in the Roman Church, buried in St. Paul’s Basilica around 340, is a masterpiece of Early Christian art. Its name originates from the three figures involved in the Creation of Eve (the scene at the top left), in which it is suggested that the first depiction of the divine Trinity may be recognized; more generally, the iconographic structure seems to reflect the doctrinal climate that followed the Council of Nicaea in 325, which resulted in the first formulation of the Trinitarian ‘Creed.’”

The Vatican Museums: .

Vaticano-The “Dogmatic Sarcophagus” in the Vatican Museums

2This sarcophagus was unearthed in Trinquetaille, a section of Arles, France, in 1974, while men were doing road work. It was found in one piece with human remains inside. Its image of the Creation of Adam and Eve was immediately compared to a similar one on the Dogmatic Sarcophagus and interpreted as another anthropomorphic representation of the Trinity.

3 The dogma of the image cannot be seen as just the final declaration of the Council of Nicaea II, the horos, although that text obviously is part of the official teaching. St. John of Damascus—before Nicaea II—and Sts. Theodore the Studite, Nicephorus of Constantinople—after it—along with the Synodikon of Orthodoxy, which was issued after the restoration of images in 843, have all contributed to elaborating the dogma of the image. One of its facets, like a diamond, is the proper interpretation of the 2nd commandment prohibiting any material, artificial image of God as well as how that commandment was partially modified when the invisible Logos himself became visible as man, therefore, allowing his representation in an image. After all, the first iconoclastic attack dealt precisely with the 2nd commandment: Making an artificial image of Jesus, being both God and man, was a violation of the commandment because such an image would be an “image of God,” prohibited by the 2nd commandment. For this study, we use the phrase “dogma of the image” both narrowly to refer to the proper way to make an image of God, but also broadly, with reference to other facets of the orthodox vision of the image.

4 S. Bigham, The Iconoclastic Attacks Against Images and Iconodule Answers, part 1.

5 Louise Pillion, Les portails latéraux de la cathédrale de Rouen, Paris, Librairie Alphonse Picard et Fils, 1907, pp. 165 ff.

6Étienne Houvet, Cathédrale de Chartres, Chelles: Faucheux, 1919.

7 Thomas Nagel, The View From Nowhere, Oxford University Press, 1986.

8 François Boespflug, Dieu dans l’art. Sollicitudini nostrae de Benoît XIV (1745) et l’affaire Crescence de Kaufbeuren, Paris, Cerf, (coll. Histoire), 1984.

9S. Bigham, Smashwords ebook platform, 2023.

10 J. O. Westwood, Facsimilies of the Miniatures and Ornaments of Anglo-Saxon and Irish Manuscripts, London, 1868, p. 129.

11 Ernst H. Kantorowicz, “The Quinity of Winchester,” The Art Bulletin XXIX, 2 June 1947, pp. 74–85.

12 C. J. Hefele, A History of the Councils of the Church, 626–787, 5, Clark, Edinburgh, 1896, p. 291.

Image of God the Father . . ., p. 29.

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