Painting the Omnipresent God

February 22, 2012

Masaccio's "Holy Trinity", located in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence.
In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, art critic Jack Flam explained why he believes Masaccio’s “Holy Trinity” is “one of the most intellectually complex and deeply moving pictures ever painted.”  Challenging previous interpretations of the work, which criticize apparent mistakes in Masaccio’s use of perspective, Flam argues that these “mistakes” are deliberate attempts on Masaccio’s part to depict the omnipresence of God in mere two-dimensional space.

The perspective in this painting is sufficiently accurate to be convincing, but purposely inexact enough to make space for the supernatural. This is strikingly evident in the representation of God the Father, who stands on the narrow ledge attached to the back wall of the barrel-vaulted space, which would appear to be about nine feet deep. Yet at the same time, He is also present at the front of this same vaulted space, supporting the body of his Son on the cross. This discrepancy in perspective allows God to be in more than one place at a time—a supernatural phenomenon made all the more remarkable by the painting’s apparent realism. Among other things, this great fresco, painted on the wall of a Dominican church, is a stunning affirmation of the great Dominican theologian St. Thomas Aquinas’s assertion that to be “everywhere primarily and absolutely is proper to God.” What better place could there be to state this with such subtlety than in a representation of the Holy Trinity, whose paradoxical consubstantiality—distinct, yet of one being—is a central mystery of Christian faith.

Click here to read the whole of Flam’s article.

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