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 mascu