Chances are you’ve seen God in a painting, be it as a kindly old man, a hand descending from the clouds or a ray of sun rippling across the trees. And you might have wondered why exactly God is portrayed as a bearded white man. The history behind this is more complicated than it might seem at first. Today I’m going to discuss the God the Father in Western Art since the writing of the old testament to the modern day.
Depictions of God in art didn’t always look like they do today. In fact, if we look far enough into the past, we’ll find that they didn’t always look like anything at all. The old testament’s book of Exodus states in its 33rd chapter that no man shall look upon God and live. The passage was long interpreted by early Christians to mean that any and all depictions of God were forbidden, and so there was a period of time in which many Christians did not create or use images of God. Of course, like all decisions made in a religion, the decision to observe aniconism was not universally agreed upon by early Christians. There are mentions of images of Jesus from around the early 2nd century onwards, and the Catacombs of Rome contain relief carvings and paintings of Jesus from the late 2nd century onward. But despite this, there is no literary evidence from before the year 300 that indicate the existence of Christian imagery anywhere. This discrepancy goes unexplained to this day.
The church’s disapproval of imagery eroded as the centuries progressed. It became commonplace for God the Father to be depicted as a hand descending from the clouds in the early medieval era. The Hand of God as a motif represents God interfering in human affairs. It was most often seen performing a blessing, but sometimes the hand would take action as well. The Hand of God did the job for some time while depictions of God the Father as a human were still considered unacceptable in Christian communities. But Christians continued to push the boundaries as time wore on. A depiction of Jesus Christ was displayed on Emperor Justinian the II’s gold coins, a move that pushed the Islamic world to stop using Byzantine coins.
This liberal attitude towards imagery in Christianity ended in the beginning of the 8th century when Emperor Leo III declared the use of icons illegal, claiming they received undue veneration and were causing the empire to lose battles. It was then that theological arguments against imagery of God and Jesus became common, with scholars claiming that art could not possibly represent the divine nature of God and Jesus in the proper way. Under order of church and state alike, depictions of God the Father in art were unseen for two centuries. The Second Council of Nicaea in 787 and the Council of Constantinople one hundred years later were turning points for depictions of God that have only progressed to the present day, making it acceptable once again for Christian artists to paint a likeness of their God.
The Renaissance period presented the biggest change in how we see God portrayed in art. For the first time artists began to portray God as a full human figure, and we can see explicitly how they progressed towards doing so over a couple of centuries. The biggest leap came first, with the first depictions of God with a face beginning to appear in the 13th century. And like with all changes of this scale, the practice of portraying God in art came gradually. Initially only the head was shown in a frame of clouds atop the painting. Over time this position progressed to a half body figure, and then a full body figure as artists continued to test the waters of using Christian imagery in their art.
Michelangelo was one of the first major artists to depict the full figure of God the Father. In his work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel God appears as a figure that while physically powerful, has an aged appearance. This portrayal, along with those by Rubens, were influential in their style and acclaim, but their portrayal of God is hardly original. They chose to help cement the already widespread practice of portraying God as a bearded patriarchal figure. Their artistic representations of God the Father are widespread to this day and by far the worst offenders in spreading misconceptions about the Christian religion, though that wasn’t at all their intention.
Even as the Renaissance ended and the modern era began, the debate over icons in Christianity didn’t end. The Russian Orthodox church banned depictions of God in 1667 and in the 1800s lower Europe and England experienced a debate over them as well.
Artistic movements like Romanticism and the Hudson River School took a different approach to the portrayal of God. They often inserted Him as a piece of nature, be it a ray of sun, a storm or a mountain. These depictions are far more suitable, assigning no particular characteristics to God and honoring his creations.
This history is important because a lot of how we view the idea of divinity, or God’s nature, is influenced by how we see him visually portrayed. I can promise that we would not see God the same way if we didn’t see him portrayed in the standard set so long ago by legendary artists such as Michelangelo and Rubens. Nowhere in scripture does God appear in physical form. While using pronouns to refer to God is necessary, it obscures what God actually is. God is an entity devoid of form or shape. In recent years people have found themselves feeling alienated from Christianity because of how God is depicted – why would an all powerful, all knowing being be a white man? Well, he isn’t. It doesn’t take much thinking to realize that, but I’m not about to condemn people who make the mistake. Incorrect portrayals are everywhere – in high art, popular culture and most importantly, our culture’s collective consciousness. It would be almost impossible to properly portray God, and that’s why there have been so many periods when doing so wasn’t allowed at all. The portrayal of God in human form gives him attributes he doesn’t have. It humanizes him and makes people think of him in a way that is not incorrect. It’s made clear over and over in the bible that God is a spirit that chose male pronouns to make himself easier to understand to humans. He does this for the same reason as the artists paint God as a man – it’s hard, maybe impossible to understand God and one of the only ways to efficiently promulgate his greatness is to make him look familiar.