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Feminine Images of God from Church History

Everyone has an image of God in their heads. Close your eyes, say to yourself the word, "God," and let your imagination move. What images and memories come to mind?

For me, I immediately thought of the picture of God in The Simpsons or Family Guy. I admit that this is probably because I watched way too much TV growing up as a kid. God is, of course, portrayed as an old white man, with a long white beard, and he is always a bit annoyed and angry.

This image, of course, is a popularization of the Father image from the Bible. It is an image that has been passed along in art history, where it has manifested in some of the great depictions of God. Think of the depiction of God and Adam in the sistine chapel, for example.

As one that grew up in the evangelical church, my understanding of God was highly masculine. In the particular church context I was raised in, this was used to prop up a hierarchal way of seeing the world, encapsulated well in a misreading of 1 Cor. 11: The order of the world went God - Christ - Man - Woman, and since God and Christ were above men, God must be male as well. For that reason, it seemed, that is why Jesus was male and he only speaks about the first member of the Trinity as male: Father.

Now, if you were raised in a similar church context like me, you will know this sensibility well. You may also have been raised to view feminine depictions of God as something emphasized in forms of paganism, the New Age, or in liberal forms of Christianity, who do not understand the Bible to be authoritative. While there is some truth to that, this is simply not the whole story.

Perhaps you are a bit of an art-nut like me, and you really enjoy looking at and thinking about artwork. I used to paint in highschool, but pastoring, doctoral studies, and parenting all have a way of sucking up all the spare time one can have for hobbies. Nevertheless, I have continued using theological pieces of art in my sermons and lectures. As I have explored art history over the years, what I have found is that while Father imagery is a primary theme in the New Testament and thus also in church history, it would be a gross error in judgment to say that this is exclusive. In fact, what I want to explore in this post is some of the images where God is depicted as female in the icon artwork of the church. (I have already explored some of the feminine images for God in the Bible in a previous reflection).

Notice that these images fall along important thematic lines (I am not going to go chronologically). First, there is a set of ways in the iconography that all of God, the entire Trinity, is female. Second, the most frequent and perhaps biblically obvious way of think about the femininity of God is by looking at Lady Wisdom as a figure for the Holy Spirit. Third, the Lady Wisdom theme intersects with iconography about Mary, the Mother of Christ. This might bother us, Protestants, who are deeply resistant to Mary being venerated as she is in Roman Catholicism. Mary plays a modest role in the Gospels, and never becomes the figure she is portrayed later. Nevertheless, as the Spirit acts through Mary to birth Christ, the implication is that the Spirit is the Mother of Christ through Mary, and this is what the tradition picks up. Thus, whether rightly or inaccurately, there is a persistent tradition in iconography that portrays Mary as a kind of icon for the Holy Spirit. Beyond that, fourthly, there are interesting other depictions that are less obvious, but still suggest the femininity of God, whether as the Holy Spirit or the whole being of God. Here they are:

Andrei Rublev's painting from the early 1400's is probably the most famous depiction of the Trinity in art history. So, it is a good one to start with. It is the scene from the Old Testament where Abraham eats with three angelic messengers by the Oaks of Mamre (Gen. 18), one of whom speaks as God. Christians have looked back at this scene and have seen trinitarian foreshadows.

Rublev's painting is an iconographic masterpiece in portraying subtle trinitarian theology. The three figures are all identical in their faces. They each are on throne-like chairs, and they each hold sceptres. No one member is greater than the other. All of this suggests the "oneness" of the Trinitarian persons, equal in deity. Two of them, Son and Spirit, are subtly looking at the one, who is the Father, bearing witness to him. The Father is wearing the glory of gold and blue, the colour of divinity, which the other two share. The Son wears the blue of diety coupled with earthy brown, representing his humanity and humility. The Spirit wears blue also, paired with the green of life. Above them are three important sites of God's presence: the temple, the tree of life (also suggestive of the cross), and the mountian (suggesting themes of Zion and the soul's ascent to God). The three sit around a table with a central chalice, which is a communion chalice, suggesting that what Abraham partook of that day was communion with the Trinity. Now, for our intents and purposes, there is one often overlooked feature of this painting: the angelic figures are female. They all have the same curly, long hair, branded together as a woman of the time did. So, yes, the most prominent image of the Trinity in Christian history is a feminine depiction.

This next one comes from an illuminated manuscript of the book, Scivias, a book of theological visions by the Hildegard von Bingen from 1151. Chances are that when you think of a phrase like "great theologians of the church" your mind will recall names like Anselm, Augustine or Aquinas. That is because the curriculum in the Western church has reiterated a list of theologians that has been deeply formative to it. However, this becomes selective memory, not actual history. The curriculum usually goes something like this: Irenaeus, Tertullian, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, etc. etc. Sadly many courses in church history or early church theology recycle a very limited list of names and writings that give a student a sense that they have "dealt" with the breath of church theological tradition, but in truth, there are massive gaps. While this was well intended, it also betrays a certain patriarchal dynamic in the remembering of the tradition of the church: male theologians are remembered over female ones. Bingen is one of the casualties of this dynamic as she deserves to be remembered as one of the great minds of the faith. A German Benedictine Abbess, she was a true polymath. She was a medical doctor, musical composer, poet, linguist, theologian, and mystic. In her theological visions, the Scivias, her visions of the Trinity explore feminine imagery through several paths. She loved nature images of the Trinity as well, and in that section of the book, this picture in the manuscript appears, simply labelled, "Trinity." One sees the central motherly figure, which her work traces through types like Eve, Lady Wisdom, Mary, and the Church, bringing together an image of the Trinity where two fields of colour draw the eye to a central image of a feminine character.

These next two images depict the Trinity with a feminine Holy Spirit. This one is from a cathedral in Urschalling, Bravaria, c. 1390. Note the depictions of Jesus and the Father with a feminine Holy Spirit in the centre. While having a different dress on the torso (purple), they are actually all are apart of one robe that comes together at the feet. The Spirit, thus, is not forgotten or downplayed, but placed at the centre.

This is from a manuscript in England, which is called "The Winchester Quinity." It was composed around 1012-20. Compared to the Urschalling image, the feminine figure in this one is visibly distanced and dissimilar from the other two. The Father and Son are twins with matching halos (which actually overlap), while the Spirit has a dove crown of sorts and holds an angel. One gets the impression of a disjointed Trinity from the Winchester image. This is important, since often Christians have held to a subordinated idea of the Trinity, with the Spirit being the forgotten member or subsumed into Christology. Just think of the suspicion many churches have to "sensing the Spirit" or to spiritual gifts, and you will understand the remifications of this kind of hierarchal trinity. This is on display subtly in the Winchester image, but it should not be forgotten that the Spirit is Lord (2 Cor. 3:17). Thus, the Spirit is not the black sheep of the Trinity in her femaleness, she is fully the Trinity.

The disjointedness of the Winchester image is a stark contrast to the theological beauty of this icon. There are many versions of this icon, usually entitled "Divine Wisdom." The earliest vision is from the 14th century, Novgorod in Moscow, Russia. This image here is a later version, which is more clear. Lady Wisdom is venerated by Mother Mary and John the Baptist on either side. Lady Wisdom is depicted on a throne with seven pillars (a description from the book of Proverbs). One sees a field of blue engulfing the Father in heaven (symbolized by the sun and moon), which comes around Jesus and down around Lady Wisdom. The field itself has stars in it that suggest the heavenly glory of the Trinity. Lady Wisdom, unlike a lot of other trinitarian icons that depict the Spirit as a tiny dove, overshadowed by the Father and Son, is the most prominent and glorious figure in the icon. The Son stands behind her in appoval, along with the Father in heaven. The line of smaller sizes suggest that Lady Wisdom is the one who reveals the Father and Son. She is in glorious attire, as already noted, but also her skin is bright red like the field around the Father. Notice the whole icon is gold, so red is the colour of choice to portray Lady Wisdom's heavenly splendour further. Worshipped by angels, venerated by saints, witnessed by the Father and Son, whom she reveals with her glory, this icon brings trinitarian theology and the Spirit's portrayal as Lady Wisdom in the Bible's wisdom literature into compelling beauty.

Another beautiful Novgorod icon, this one is entitled, "Wisdom hath built her house." It dates to the 16th century.

What house is this? The top of the icon is the house of the church, with all the saints. The lower part of the icon depicts Jesus with Mary (right) and Lady Wisdom (left). Notice that Lady Wisdom is featured more prominently, both having the circular heavenly fields that is characteristic of Russian iconography (look up the "Anastasis" icon at the Church of Chora), but hers has medallion-like icons in the outer layer, which represents the first order of heavenly beings (as depicted in the important theological work, De Coelesti Hierarchia, 7:4). She again rests on a throne of seven pillars, and in her hand as well as on the top of the circular fields is a communion cup. Also, the circles float over and above a feast or communion table.

This is where it gets particularly interesting: The feast depicts one group giving another group the chalices of wine. The group without the wine, closest to Jesus, has what appears to be John pointing to Lady Wisdom with his writings. On the other side is King Solomon (the figure behind the Proverbs traditions where Lady Wisdom is featured) pointing to Jesus with his writings. Thus, this feast is of the Old and New Testament saints, coming together, as Old Testament points to Jesus and the New Testament points back to Lady Wisdom. However, it is the Old Testament saints that are giving the wine to the New Testament believers. One cannot help but see a kind of anti-Marcionite guard here, showing the goodness of both Old and New Testaments (which Marcion famously denied), but particularly the dependance of the New on the Old (it almost suggests that to forget Lady Wisdom for the more masculine imagery of the New Testament is to commit an almost Marcionite blunder). The Old Testament has salvific wisdom that is given to the New Testament from Lady Wisdom through Jesus Christ. Ephesians 3:8-12, a kind of theme verse for this icon, says, "...this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence."

This is another quite common icon of Lady Sophia (or Hagia Sophia, as it says) with dozens of versions out there, and it depicts the Lady with three female children. Who are the three children? Traditionally, they are the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love (1 Cor. 13:13). Sometimes they are labelled, other times not. Sometimes they are given representative saints, and in other cases they are more generic like this one.

However depicted, one is reminded that the virtues are the work of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, coinciding with the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Remember Paul chastises the Corinthian church for obsessing over the different spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12) while neglecting the deeper gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 13), where these, particularly love, is elaborated. The clear implication here is that Lady Wisdom is the Holy Spirit, and her work is the Spiritual gifts, most notably, the deepest gifts: Faith, Hope, and Love. Notice all four hold the cross as to reminder to the viewer that true wisdom and virtue is only possible if love is self-sacrificial, cross-shaped.

This painting represents a pivotal and controversial juncture in thinking about the Holy Spirit. There mare many like it that come before, but this one makes the point (and thus the others) more clear. This is entitled "Theotokos as Sophia, Holy Wisdom," and it is not as old as the others. It is from 1812. I am not going to unpack all the symbols in this, but just note the trinitarian dynamic happening here. Mary's title was called Theotokos or "God-bearer," which has its own important history in the theological debates over Jesus' humanity and divinity. Notice further that she is identified with Lady Wisdom in this icon. However, the Holy Spirit is above her with the Father in Heaven. The Greek Orthodox Church would eventually go through a controversy about this. Some saw Lady Wisdom as something like a fourth member of the Trinity, which is of course problematic. This reflects two things that are important: the growing inability to understand femininity in God (where Lady Wisdom becomes detached as a figure of the Spirit) as well as the use of Mary as an icon of Lady Wisdom (who in other depictions is the Holy Spirit). The later dynamic helps us understand some other depictions.

This is a statue of Mary from the 15th century. The statue opens up as it has hinges on either side, and the inside, depicted here, shows the Father and the Cross with the saints of the church on either door. It mirrors a common set of icons where the Father, Son, and Spirit are depicted as one on or inside the other (see the Novgorod icon, "Divine Fatherhood," as an example). Again, to understand that Mary is often portrayed as a figure of the Holy Spirit is to understand that this is a trinitarian representation in how it functioned. As the Spirit comes upon Mary to birth Christ, so the Spirit is the pathway of salvation into the Father and Son. Again, Protestants will not like this line of reasoning. However, the figure of Mary is an interesting symbol for how the Spirit is the Mother of Christ and the Mother of the Church. Remember that to be saved is to be "born again" and "born of the Spirit." Catholic interpreters have classically looked to the woman and the child who escape the dragon in the Book of Revelations as a kind of moment in the Bible where the symbol of Mary the Mother with Christ gets appropriated as a symbol of the church (in this case, the figure of Mary and the historical person of Mary are two different things). It was these phrases and moments that suggested to the artist that Mary could be used as a figure of the Holy Spirit (or at the very least, the Spirit's work). Again, Protestants might recoil, but remember that the Spirit is very difficult to depict. The most common depiction of the Spirit is merely a dove, and so, if a dove can symbolize a member of the Trinity, why not a figure the Spirit acted through to conceive Christ?

Agree with it or not, it shows an important willingness concerning feminine imagery in the life of the church. This may also suggest that as the Church suppressed or neglected feminine imagery, the need for feminine representation merges with Mary veneration, fulfilling a need for intimacy over and against more hierarchal and austere depictions.

Similar to the above depiction, this image by Kondrad Witz is entitled, "Man of Sorrows and Mary" (1450), and it has a dynamic in it you would miss if you were not looking for it. Jesus on the left is showing his scars to Thomas, but then the other side shows Jesus coming to the throne of the Father with Mary behind him. The Father is depicted with a mitre-like crown, symbolizing bishop and kingly rule. Again, you would miss it if you are not looking for it, but Witz intended this as a trinitarian depiction, albeit one that some have suggested could be taken in subordinationalist ways. Look at the four halos of the painting. Jesus' halo has lines signifying deity, where Thomas' does not. On the other side, all three have the halos of deity, suggesting that Mary, again, is a figure representing the Spirit in the Trinity.

This is a less obvious but quite intriguing piece. St. Francis, a saint from the 13th century, in a vision claimed that Lady Poverty courted him to take up the way of poverty that founded the Franciscan Order. Later he reported that he had a vision where he married Lady Poverty, which this icon represents. This image depicts their marriage, but notice that Lady Poverty is portrayed in a three-fold manner, who then ascends back to heaven. One will immediately get the trinitarian sense of this, much like the three angels that visited Abraham depicted in Rublev. From the sense that St. Francis speaks about Lady Poverty, one realizes that she is more than a personification. She is a trinitarian representation that symbolizes Francis' union with God. Often celibate nuns would speak about how Jesus was their true spouse, and you get the same kind of rhetoric coming from celibate monks as well. St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote allegorical interpretations of the Song of Songs as depicting the love of the monks with Christ and the church. St. Francis does this with the Holy Spirit tradition that sees her as Lady Wisdom, who embodies the ways of God, thus, in this case, Lady Poverty.

This last one is not a particularly explicit one, but nevertheless very suggestive. This is a fresco from a catacomb, the Catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, Via Labicana, Rome. It is from the third century, which means it is very early. It is actually among the earliest pieces of Christian art we have.

However, more interesting is the label. The picture is of a communion feast. Remember communion was not the "Lord's snack" as it is today with a tiny cup and sliver of bread. It was a fully meal as a community, where the remembrance of Jesus' cross and resurrection were recited. Look who is leading the feast: a woman. The label says, "Agape misce nobis," which literally means "Agape, mixed for us." That is shorthand for saying that Agape has prepared this meal and wine. The woman seems to be named Agape. From a similar fresco in that same catacomb, there is woman presiding over communion there and she is labelled, Irene: "Peace." The artist is suggesting that Love and Peace are present at and lead thes communion feasts. The names Love and Peace suggest that these symbolize the presence of God. The fact that they lead the feast in the same way Christ or a priest did points to the possibility that feminine leadership over the eucharist may have taken placed into the third century despite there being little written record of it from this era.

This depiction is also over a tomb. The slot cut into the wall was perhaps for a martyr or cherished saint that was laid to rest there. That makes the symbolism all the more rich: this person is now enjoying the banquet of love fully in heaven. Again, while this a bit more obscure, it is nevertheless a very early depiction of feminine presence in Christian worship.

So, what does all this mean? For starters, those that claim the church is unanimous on masculine imagery for God just plain old don't know their history. They are the products of selective histories. We will get into this more in later posts, but the notion that feminine imagery is the product of modern liberalism or the New Age movement (while these do use feminine imagery) is not the case. The church has been reflecting on Scripture for 2000 years, and the feminine imagery comes from scriptural reflection on the Spirit as Lady Wisdom, a theme most evangelical Christians today simply have forgotten even though it is in the Bible.

Often when I talk about feminine imagery for God with pastors or lay people, the look on some people's faces is the look of sheer terror, as if by even merely bringing it up this will get them driven out of their churches with torches and pitch forks. In some cases that might literally be true, but those instances might be the ones where God has been reduced so badly to the masculine, one worries as the feminist Mary Daly once said, "If God is male, the male is god." In that case, there are some idols that need smashing, and what better way to do that than by recalling the rich icons of the church? Some have taken feminine imagery for God to be an attack on Scripture's depiction of God as Father and the Son, but these icons suggest that this is not the case. If take to be the exclusive images in people's heads, that's the problem, but as I have been saying, it is not about trying to correct the Bible's pictures of God. It is about saying that's not the whole story. The problem with fundamentalism that represses women's equality is not that it is biblical. It is that it is not biblical enough.

Rublev and the Novgorod pieces have important lessons to teach us, and one of the easiest ways to have a conversation about whether we have assumed a patriarchal view of God is by noting these feminine images for God in Scripture and tradition. On the other hand, having a painting of Lady Wisdom in your foyer will not solve much (although that is bound to be an improvement compared to what artistic and theological monstrosities reside in most church foyers). The churches that produced these icons, like the Greek Orthodox Church that housed the Novgorod icons, is still quite patriarchal to this day. They have beautiful icons of Lady Wisdom saving communion where women are not allowed to be priests to serve said communion. One should not overestimate what art can do as all art requires interpretation and reflection, and some frankly don't connect all the dots.

However, a good piece of art excites the imagination, lingers in your memory, and can be used to start a conversation. That's what these icons can do. And the dignity of men and women, which reflect the very nature of God in God's very self, Father, Son, and Spirit (Lady Wisdom), is a conversation worth having.

Spencer Miles Boersma is Assistant Professor of Theology at Acadia Divinity College and serves on the Board of ASBE.

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