Iconographic Depictions of the Father?

Ambrose Andreano

No matter what I read in defense of visual depictions of the Father as a man, the conversation always goes back to a conversation about the Ancient of Days. St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite (1749-1809), in his prolegomena to the Seventh Ecumenical Council wrote specifically about depicting the Father as the Ancient of Days, but he was a product of his time. To be fair, I will also not use the Moscow synod of 1666 which condemned depictions of the Father. This particular time period is said to be an incredibly murky 200 years of Western influence (17th-19th century), so I will not use it for the sake of taking a different argumentative route. The Old Testament passage is as follows:

I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire. (Daniel 7:9)

Even though many of the Church Fathers make exegetical illustration to Christ and His victory, this is not a literal description of what Daniel saw, nor was it what the text originally meant. Such an interpretation is more in the realm of creative theological liberties rather than exegetical accuracy. There is one interpretation by St Ambrose that is more accurate, especially in a visual sense:

He who sees Jesus, to him are the heavens opened as they were opened to Stephen, when he said: “Behold I see the heavens opened and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”  Jesus was standing as his advocate, He was standing as though anxious, that He might help His athlete Stephen in his conflict, He was standing as though ready to crown His martyr. Let Him then be standing for you, that you may not be afraid of Him sitting; for when sitting He judges, as Daniel says: “The thrones were placed, and the books were opened, and the Ancient of Days did sit. (Ambrose of Milan, Letter 63)
Christ as the Ancient of Days

Ambrose is rightly noticing that Christ is revealed as paradoxically multifaceted in Scripture. Christ is simultaneously standing and sitting: standing to reveal how He is always ready and willing to come help us in our conflicts, and sitting to remind us that He is, as Scripture declares, the one who sits on the throne and judges. Christ, in one sense, sits at the right hand of God, and in another sense, is Himself God. Christ, in one sense, undergoes a kenotic descent to mankind, and in another sense, never ceases to move from what He always was. The liturgical services also testify to Christ as the Ancient of Days when it says:

He who is ancient of days and young in the flesh is being brought into the Temple by his virgin Mother. (Feast of the Meeting of the Lord)

The ancient of days in a visual sense, is Christ, who is the image of the Father. “No man hath seen God,” which would include Daniel.(John 1:18, 4:12) Christ is even expressed with near identical imagery with the Ancient of Days in Revelation, which says,

His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire.(Rev 1:14)

This brings Daniel’s vision to its New Testament reality, because Revelation is essentially a continuation of Daniel’s vision. What was once called “Ancient of Days” in the Old Testament is now transfigured into the New Testament phrase “Alpha and Omega.”(Rev 1:8) One must always interpret the Old Testament obscurities in light of the New Testament revelation. The Old Testament always prefigures the coming Christ, for Christ’s said:

Search the scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life, and they are they which testify of me.(Jhn 5:39)

It is at least possible that one reason many church fathers missed some of the nuances of Daniel 7 simply because many of them did not have Revelation in their collection of scriptures. This would make sense as to why St Ambrose, a Western saint, had such an interpretation. Revelation never fell out of favor with the West like it did with the East.

However, in spite of this, Daniel’s vision is already explicitly interpreted within the text itself(Dan 7:18, 27) People seem to stop reading before they get to the part where scripture says the “one like the son of man” are the saints of God merely being represented by a single person. We know retrospectively, in light of Christ, that the saints of God are able to achieve this precisely because Christ is the firstfruits of mankind (1 Cor 15:23), but it does not follow that an anthropomorphic vision is a prooftext for iconographic depictions of the Father as a man. Despite the fact that the “son of man” can be exegetically spoken of in light of Christ (the representative of mankind and the last Adam), it becomes theologically problematic to then visually depict the Father as a man in icons. Daniel used anthropomorphism to describe aspects of his vision and experience of God: garment like snow, hair like wool, throne like flame, etc. These are details that mean something specific about the character of God through Daniel’s personal and unspeakable experience of the Divine. Such a vision is not meant to be taken literally, because not only did Daniel not literally see such details with his eyes, but visions in Scripture are not literal, as clearly seen with Nebuchadnezzar earlier on in the book.

The better understanding, which avoids the problematic nature of depicting the Father visually, is that 1) the “one like the son of man” represents us, the saints (who are ‘like’ the Son of Man), approaching the glorified Christ (the Ancient of Days/Alpha and Omega) sitting on the throne. This is the central image that Daniel is seeing. However, the image is also multifaceted. It also ‘represents’ 2) the Son (representing a saintly mankind) approaching the Father and being symbolically seated at His right hand. Not only this, but 3) it also represents the dual nature of Christ: one who seemingly appears to be man born of a woman, yet at the same time, is seated on the heavenly throne holding all things together, as St Athanasius says. This threefold representation, I believe, is the most accurate, while also correcting the problematic nature of some interpretations.

When the Father is depicted as a man in icons, it seems to inevitably undermine St. John of Damascus and the incarnation altogether. Jesus said you see the Father through Him (Jhn 14:9). Therefore, scripture testifies that Jesus is the icon of the invisible God (Col 1:15). In other words, when you look at Jesus, you see the Father as well. When there is an icon that simultaneously shows both Jesus and a human depiction of the Father, it is a blatant departure from the Gospel narrative, and the average person is not going to discern the difference between Christ (who is literally a man and not anthropomorphized) and the Father (who is anthropomorphized and not literally a man), because both are simply shown to be men. If one were to ask, “Show me an icon of the Ancient of Days,” the answer will always be the same: “If you’ve seen Christ, you’ve seen the Ancient of Days.” Therefore, to depict the Ancient of Days in Daniel, one need only depict Christ as the Ancient of Days. He is the Word of God, the One through whom the Father is seen/known by men.

Therefore, it could be argued that visually depicting the Father as a man is theologically inconsistent with what Orthodoxy teaches, or at the very least, inevitably misleading the viewer into confusion. I believe it is essential that Daniel’s Old Testament vision is read through a New Testament lens: specifically (1) the gospel proclamation that the Father is seen through Christ, (2) that Jesus is the icon of the invisible God, (3) the Old Testament is about Christ, (4) Christ is the Alpha and Omega, (5) Christ in Scripture is multifaceted. I think to use any other method to interpret the text is simply not as accurate.

I do not expect this blog post to end the discussion by any means, I simply desire to bring the discussion further along in the hopes of one day arriving at a consensus.

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