The Power of Paintings
The church of St Peter in Begur, a small Catalonian town, presents a fascinating glimpse of how the medieval church wielded its power. The walls of the nave and the whole of the apse were covered in paintings – saints, angels, bishops. High up on the apse wall behind the altar was an almond-shaped lozenge, a mandala (a Sanskrit word signifying a sacred space) depicting the trinity, but in a form I’d never seen before. Two men were seated together. The elder, “God the Father” sported, of course, a long white beard. The younger, “Jesus the Son”, seated at the Father’s right hand, wore a crown and a chasuble – the priest-king. Beneath their feet a dove hovered, beak facing down.
The edge of the mandala, the lozenge, was boldly outlined, protecting the Trinity. The symbols of the four gospel writers formed a square on its outside. It was as if the gospel figures were creating a fissure in the heavens to provide worshippers with a glimpse of the Trinity. This Trinity, and heaven of course, had no obvious connection with humanity (except the human forms of the two figures). No other link was provided. The Trinity was remote, isolated, protected by the rim of the mandala. This was sacred space, out of bounds to humanity - except through the larger than life male figure painted below the lozenge and gazing out over the congregation from above the head of the priest.
This was St Peter, of course, clutching two very heavy keys in one hand and either pointing towards the Trinity with the other, or waving his finger in admonition at the people gathered below. The painting suggested both interpretations. St Peter was, of course, claimed to be the first Bishop of Rome, with power to allow or exclude entry to “heaven”, power that Popes have claimed and exercised ever since.
The lozenge dominated the apse. It was unnerving to see such a literal depiction of the Trinity still in use in a contemporary place of worship. It is interesting as a medieval understanding of the Trinity – but one wonders at its effect on today’s worshippers.The ancients of Israel refused to have any depiction of God other than a cloud or a flame. Only those two forms of shapelessness served to hint at the presence of the divine. God was mystery, but also light. Perhaps we ought to take great care with the words we use about “God” lest we fall into the trap of limiting our understanding of the divine.