The Trinity

La Santa Trinidad

Feast day: The eighth Sunday after Easter (the Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost)

Essay by Karen S. Billings

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity has been a core tenet of the faith for most Christians since the fourth century. It was articulated by the Council of Nicaea (325) and the First Council of Constantinople (381), and is summarized in the Athanasian Creed as follows: “the Catholic Faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. … For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost is all One.” The depiction of the Holy Trinity as three identical men was common in Byzantine art and, by the twelfth century, was widely used in Medieval and Renaissance artwork.

In Mexican retablos, the three persons of the Trinity are depicted as identical young men, triplets of the same age and size, each distinguishable from the others by the symbols worn or carried and, in many depictions, by the garments worn. God the Father is normally placed in the center, and he wears a round image of the sun, holds a scepter, and points upward in benediction with two fingers of his right hand. God the Son may wear a lamb on his chest, signifying his role as the Paschal Victim, or he may display the wounds of the crucifixion. He is usually “seated at the right hand of the Father” (Nicene Creed). The Holy Spirit appears on the opposite side of the Father and usually wears the symbol of a dove on his chest.

In some depictions, all three are dressed in white, while others show each in robes symbolizing his role. In the latter case, the Father wears white robes (symbols of purity, faith, light, and integrity), the Holy Spirit wears red robes (symbols of royalty and the blood of Christian martyrs), and the Son wears a brown or reddish robe with a blue mantle (symbols of humility and of heaven and divine love, respectively). In some cases, all three members of the Trinity are depicted with identical triangular halos, even though the triangular halo was originally used in medieval art to identify God the Father. The Trinity is often shown against a yellow background that symbolizes the vault of heaven, with all three seated on an orb representing the world, indicating that the Godhead holds “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18a, NIV).

In three retablos from the Collection (figs.1-3), the Trinity is depicted as identical triplets who are seated on a blue orb flanked by clouds. In all three, the Holy Spirit is shown wearing red robes with a dove on his breast, and God the Father is shown in white robes with a round sun on his breast, holding a scepter in his left hand while gesturing in benediction with three fingers of his right hand. In the first retablo (fig.1), the Trinity is depicted against a blue and yellow background that represents the vault of heaven. Each member wears a halo of las tres potencias (the three powers), symbolizing the Holy Trinity. In addition, each member shows one foot: the Son shows his right foot with a wound of the crucifixion, while the Father and the Holy Spirit both show the left foot.

The Son wears a pink robe with a blue mantle, marked with a white lamb on his breast; he bears the marks of the crucifixion on his hands and on his one visible foot. The second retablo (fig. 2) shows the triplets with a yellow-gold oval background representing the vault of heaven. Both feet of the Son are shown, while only the left feet of the Father and the Holy Spirit are visible. The Son is dressed in a blue mantle and brown robes with a white smudge on his breast that could be interpreted as a Paschal Lamb. All three members have triangular gold halos. The third retablo (fig. 3) shows the trinity against a golden-brown background; their feet are hidden beneath their robes. The Son wears a blue mantle over a brown robe marked with a white lamb and his hands bear the marks of the crucifixion. All three members have halos in the outline of a triangle, symbolizing the Holy Trinity.

Figure 1. The Holy Trinity/ La Santísima Trinidad

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on Tin. 10 x 14”. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1969.3.6.

Donor: Dr. and Mrs. Andrew M. Babey.

Figure 2. The Holy Trinity/ La Santísima Trinidad

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1969.4.63

Figure 3. The Holy Trinity / La Santísima Trinidad

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1966.6.32.

References

Chorpenning, J. F, ed. Mexican Devotional Retablos: From the Peters Collection. Philadelphia: Saint Joseph’s University Press, 1994.

Encyclopedia Britannica. “Feast of the Holy Trinity.” Accessed April 25, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Feast-of-the-Holy-Trinity.

Giffords, G. F. Mexican Folk Retablos: Masterpieces on Tin. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1974.

Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

Sullivan, James. “The Athanasian Creed.” Accessed April 10, 2019. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02033b.htm

Zarur, Elizabeth Netto Calil and Charles Muir Lovell, eds. Art and Faith in Mexico: The Nineteenth-Century Retablo Tradition. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.