June 11th 2022


Panel from “The Trinity Altarpiece”, Hugo van der Goes, 1478-9, National Galleries of Scotland.

One way to get people to think about the doctrine of the Trinity is to ask them to draw God.  Very few will come up with an image such as this one which is now the National Gallery of Scotland.  This panel was part of an altarpiece which was painted for the Collegiate Chapel of the Holy Trinity, by an artist from the Netherlands called Hugo van der Goes around 1478.    The chapel was pulled down in 1848 to make way for Waverley Station but the doors of the triptych have survived.  When asked to draw God, one person might draw an old man.  Another might draw something more abstract such as a triangle or an all-seeing eye.  The same variance of images is found throughout the history of Christian art.  The Holy Trinity has been shown as a three-headed man or even as three eggs in a nest.   This particular image of God the Father seated on a throne holding the Son in death draws on the Jewish “seat of mercy”.     The seat of mercy was actually the cover or lid of the Ark of the Covenant which was kept in the inner sanctuary of the  Jerusalem Temple, known to us as the Holy of Holies.  On the day of Atonement the priest entered the Holy of Holies, and having offered incense before the mercy seat, he sprinkled it with the the blood of a bull as act of atonement for his sins and that of the whole people (Lev 16: 27).   The author of Hebrews writes of Christ “he entered once and for all into the Holy place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb 9:12).   In this image the orb represents the world, gold represents heaven, but I would suggest it is Christ’s blood shed on the cross which colours the robes of the Father.  This flow of red stems from the Father’s embrace of the Son and the hovering Spirit.   This image was painted on the outside of one of the doors of the altarpiece and was visible when the doors were closed.  On the other door a man is shown kneeling in prayer and looking towards this image of the Trinity. Taken together the two panels can be read as showing him receiving this vision of the Trinity.   These two panels show the revelation of the Trinity as the source of mercy for our world.  The flowing red garment, and the way the Father’s hands gently hold the Son as in a pietà make this unusual image very moving.   The Spirit hovers, sent by the Father into the world for the forgiveness of sins – that is, our sins.


Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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