Sunday, May 24, 2015

Trinity and Harmony

Finding an adequate explanation and model for the relationship of the Trinity is an ongoing task. Water as solid, liquid, gas. Egg as shell, white, yolk. Person as parent, sibling, child. Each one provides some insight but can break down when (as a theology professor warned) "your metaphor takes you farther than you want to go." Trinity Sunday, then, can be fraught with vulnerable analogies.

Artists often have the luxury of showing rather than telling - affirming the Trinity without having to explain exactly how it works. Even so, artists need to find adequate symbols to show what they believe. The creator of the Ghent Altarpiece (Jan and/or Hubert van Eyck...or someone else, depending on which art historians you read) included some small elements that offer food for thought about the Trinity. Art of the Northern Renaissance, with van Eyck as a leading light, has been characterized as having "disguised symbolism," but the symbols would have been fairly apparent to the educated audience of the day. Today's audiences may need more schooling.

At the center of the upper register of the Altarpiece is the first person of the Trinity seated on a throne. He is wearing a three-tiered crown which can be read as a reference to the Trinity. An even more subtle reference, though, is found in the performing angels in the arched panel to the right of the figures (as we look at the work).
Jan van Eyck. Ghent Altarpiece (detail, upper register, open wings). 1426-27. Cathedral of St. Bavo, Ghent, Belgium.
The angels are gathered around an organ with a single rank of pipes. Two details speak to the Trinity. The first is the number of pipes. It would be more usual to see an organ with 15 pipes. Here, though, there are 21 pipes, which is three full octaves. Three octaves is a reference to the Trinity. A close look at the organists's hands reveals that she is playing three notes: C and G with the left hand and E with the right hand. These three notes (if they were played in the same octave) are two sets of thirds and form a triad. The idea of the Trinity as music - and specifically harmony - multiple notes played together in a pleasing effect - is a helpful contribution to the discussion of the Trinity. Harmony has the non-musical definition of agreement, peace, and unity. Also helpful and characteristic of the Trinity.
Athanasius Kircher. Musurgia universalis sive ars magna consoni et dissoni in X. libros digesta . Romae : Ex typographia Haeredum Francisci. Corbelletti, 1650.
Two hundred years later a musical theorist used the instrument again and included references to the Trinity. Kircher's music encyclopedia includes the illustration "Harmony of the Birth of the World" which uses the organ to convey the order of creation. Each of the six days of creation is described in a circle above a rank of pipes. It is at the bottom of the illustration where the Trinity is referenced. Immediately beneath the keyboard is a Latin inscription that reads, “Thus God’s eternal wisdom plays in sphere of the worlds.” Notice how the keyboard in Kircher's print departs from the recognizable pattern. Rather than the pattern of two black keys followed by three black keys, then two, then three, here all the groups of black keys are in threes. Three levers (stops) are on each side of the keyboard.

Kircher and van Eyck are but two of the artists who relate the Trinity to musical imagery. Harmony. Chords. Trinity. Visual art. It's a polyphonic idea that just might be worth singing about on Trinity Sunday.

On Art&Faith Matters on Facebook this week. a coat of arms for God that includes the Trinity. Click on the link below to learn more. 

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