Trifacial Trinity (Trinidad trifacial) by Anonymous, Cusco School

Anonymous, Cusco School

Trifacial Trinity (Trinidad trifacial), c.1750–70, Oil on canvas, 182 x 124 cm, Museo de Arte de Lima, Peru; Memorial Memory Donation, V-2.0-0035, Album / Alamy Stock Photo

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Teaching the Trinity

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen

‘…believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father (John 10:38).

From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries the Cuzco School, an artistic movement in Peru, flourished. Its primary aim was to bring the Roman Catholic faith to the Inca. European Christian iconography was now inculturated into the ‘new world’.

Highly didactic, symbolic, and schematic, this image was intended to teach the basic truths about the Trinity. While some trinitarian images have proved capable of instilling a sense of mystery, depth, awe, and contemplation in the onlooker, this frontal image is somewhat flat and heavily laden with symbolism. Three identical interlinking faces are depicted on the Trinity’s head, behind which a haloed triangle reinforces the three-in-oneness, which then again is echoed in the large Scutum Fidei (or ‘Trinity Shield’), a thirteenth-century statement about the Trinity that has never been equalled for its brevity. The Trinity is framed by heavenly clouds and by the four Evangelists, thus connecting the Trinity with the biblical authority of the Gospels. The papal tiara at the bottom centre makes the link with the ‘true’—the Roman Catholic—Church through the centuries.

How ironic to include the papal tiara in the trifacial iconography which had, in fact, received papal condemnation, first by Urban VIII (1568–1644, pope from 1623) in the seventeenth century, and, over one hundred years later, by Benedict XIV (1675–1758, pope from 1740)! Images of this type were condemned not so much on dogmatic but on aesthetic–biological grounds as ‘monstrous’, offensive aberrations of nature.

The Cuzco painters, thousands of miles away from Rome, seem to have been little troubled by such worries. Aesthetic–artistic excellence and papal pronouncements were eclipsed by didactic–theological aspirations. Images such as these seem certainly to have fulfilled their intended purpose in teaching the ‘pagan’ Inca the Christian Trinitarian faith, just as they had previously succeeded in doing in medieval Europe.

Indeed, perhaps precisely by contradicting and going beyond what is ‘normal’ and natural, the rendition of the Trinity as a hybrid figure may have succeeded in conveying something of the transcendent otherness and mystery of the divine.

 

References

Brown, David. 2002. ‘The Trinity in Art’, in The Trinity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity, ed. by Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, and Gerald O’Collins (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 329–56

Thiessen, Gesa Elsbeth. 2018. ‘Not So Unorthodox: A Reevaluation of Tricephalous Images of the Trinity’, Theological Studies, 79.2: 399–426