The Mystery of the Godhead
By Davis Domescik
The Trinity is a concept that has always been shrouded in mystery. For almost two thousand years, philosophers and theologians have debated the relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. One great way to interpret controversial, highly debated religious subjects such as the Holy Trinity is to look at how they are visually depicted. A beautiful depiction of the Trinity is found in the chapel of East Lake United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Each window depicts a different person of the Trinity, and each one tells a different story. They are noteworthy for they are an example of depicting the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in equal terms. Each window is the same size. Each uses symbolism rather than a human form to represent its subject.
History of Church/Windows
The East Lake neighborhood was organized in 1886, and a year later plans for a church were in development. In 1889, the first building for what was then known as East Lake Methodist Episcopal Church, South was completed. In 1891, this church was succeeded by one much grander on the same lot at Second Avenue South and 80th Street. This church would likely still be standing today if not for a catastrophic tornado in 1903 that severely damaged it. With this church destroyed, a new stone church was under construction by August 1905. In November 1909, the new church was used for the first time. Finally, the current church was begun in December 1945. It was opened on September 12, 1948. The current church was designed by George P. Turner, a prominent architect and senior partner the local firm of Turner and Batson. The church’s style is Lombard Romanesque. This style of church architecture is characterized by thick walls and bands of arched windows and is so named because it comes from the Lombardy region of Italy.
The Trinity Windows were designed by the Willet Stained Glass Studios of Philadelphia. This company has done various other projects at thousands of churches coast to coast. From West Point, New York, to Sacramento, California, The Willet Studios have a prolific collection of stained-glass windows. With the Trinity Windows, they have another impressive addition to their collection.
Background on the Trinity
The doctrine of the Trinity holds that God is three persons in one nature. Each of these three persons is distinct, but they are simultaneously one God. This is a confusing concept to grasp and has been debated for centuries. One debate that rages about the Trinity is if it is even referenced in the Bible. There is no explicit mention of the Trinity in either the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) and the New Testament, but many verses contain Trinitarian formulas. One of the most notable mentions of the Trinitarian formula is found in the Gospel according to Matthew. As Jesus is commissioning his disciples, he states: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19 RSV). This verse, along with other mentions of the three persons of God in the Bible, laid the foundation for early Trinitarian teachings.
In the early fourth century, the Son being of one nature with the Father and the Holy Ghost was established as the orthodox teaching of the Trinity. This doctrine was further fleshed out by Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus. These Christian theologians are known as the Cappadocian Fathers, as they were all born in the same region of what is now Turkey (Cappadocia). Despite this ancient history, debate still rages to this day about the Trinity in various Christian denominations. United Methodist churches (such as East Lake United Methodist Church) believe that God is one God in three persons. United Methodists prize three documents that reference the Trinity: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Twenty-Five Articles of Religion. The Apostles’ Creed is Trinitarian in structure; each section discusses one person of the Trinity. Methodists use it during baptismal rites, as the minister of baptism asks the people receiving baptism if they believe in each section of the Apostles’ Creed.
This creed is ancient and not exclusive to United Methodists. It is used in churches all across the country, much like the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed is very similar to the Apostles’ Creed in structure, but when talking about Jesus, it elaborates a bit more on his relationship with God the Father. This creed reaffirms the orthodox teaching of the Trinity: that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are all one being, but they are three persons. While the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed are used by multiple denominations, the Twenty-Five Articles of Religion are Methodist documents. They were drawn from the Articles of Religion of the Church of England by John Wesley, the father of Methodism. These articles discuss various topics, including free will, original sin, purgatory. The first article discusses the Holy Trinity. A section of this article states that “there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost”. The Trinity (once again) is shown here as being one God in three beings. Overall, the Trinity is an intensely debated topic, but it is generally believed that God is one being that lives in three divine persons. However, the Trinity can take many different forms in art, and these depictions help shed some light on the interpretation of the Trinity.
Interpretation of the Trinity Windows
There are many layers to consider when interpreting the Trinity Windows as a whole. Each window uniquely depicts the Trinity, yet they all seem familiar simultaneously. All of the windows are symbolic depictions of the Trinity, and each one is pretty conventional. The first window depicts God the Father. His hand is outstretched to the earth, and this represents the Lord blessing the world. In medieval art, depictions of God the Father as a human were forbidden, and that tradition carries over to this window. Other than the Hand of God, various images related to the creation, as it is described in Genesis 1, are included in the window. The sun, moon, earth, and stars are all present, along with three gray clouds. These were all created by God in Genesis 1. It is interesting to note that the planet is entirely green in the window; this suggests that the windows were completed before the Space Age. The image of the earth that is widespread today (in which the earth is shown to be blue and white) was not etched into the public mind until December 1968, when NASA’s Apollo 8 mission took photographs of the earth from lunar orbit. In general, this window is a traditional depiction of the creation: God’s hand is outstretched in blessing as he creates the earth, sun, moon, and more.
For the second window, Jesus is depicted as a lamb. This interpretation of Jesus originates from the Gospel according to John. John the Baptist sees Jesus and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). This ties into the overall role of Jesus in Christianity. Lambs were often sacrificed for the common good, and they were also used as offerings. Jesus died for the sin of the world, making the ultimate sacrifice in the process. Furthermore, the lamb is seen resting on a book with seven seals. This is a reference to Revelation 5, in which the lamb who was slain (Jesus) is called to loose the seven seals on a book in order to open it. It is easy to tell that Jesus is depicted in the window because of the reasons given above, but also because the lamb has a golden halo around its head. This is a distinctive feature almost exclusive to Jesus when he is depicted as a lamb. This is not to say that halos are exclusive to Jesus; it is just to say that when a lamb has a halo, it is most certainly Christ. Another exciting feature of the windows to be interpreted are the two Greek letters above the lamb. These letters are Alpha and Omega, and this is yet another reference to the Bible and Revelation. The verse in question is Revelation 22:13: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
Finally, the Holy Spirit is the subject of the third window. It is depicted as a dove, and this is probably the most famous (and most used) representation of the Holy Spirit. The Bible describes the Holy Spirit as a dove during the baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3:16. The verse says that “And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him.” In the window, tongues of fire are also emanating from the dove. This is in reference to the biblical account of Pentecost and how tongues of fire came to rest on the apostles and filled them with the Holy Spirit. In the process, they began to speak other languages. There are also seven tongues of fire, which represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord). Overall, these windows have many details that reference the Bible, as well as overall Trinitarian theology. But, when compared to depictions of God and the Trinity in other works of art, it is clear that the Trinity Windows are uncommon.
Comparisons to other works of art/Key Differences
The pictures above are two different images that show the Trinity. The first is a stained-glass window in Trinity Episcopal Church in Towson, Maryland. The next is the painting The Holy Trinity by Masaccio.
These images are significant because, unlike East Lake’s Trinity windows, they do not rely on symbolism to depict the Trinity. It is true that both images depict the Holy Spirit as a dove, but this is because the dove is the most common symbol of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not seen in human form. The stained-glass window makes Jesus the center of attention, as it shows his ascension into Heaven, with his disciples watching. It is hard to tell at first, but the Trinity is depicted. The Hand of God is outstretched towards Jesus, and the Holy Spirit flies high above all of the subjects of the image in the form of a dove. This image, unlike the Trinity Windows, does not depict the Trinity in equal forms. Jesus appears as a human rather than a lamb or another symbol. This theme carries over into Masaccio’s painting. God and Jesus are both depicted as human. While Jesus is normally depicted as a human, depictions of God the Father as human were extremely prevalent in Renaissance art such as this. The Holy Spirit is once again depicted as a dove, flying right above the head of Jesus. So, both images depict the Trinity as unequal, with some persons appearing in human form and some appearing as symbols as well. This is what makes the East Lake Trinity windows so distinctive: they depict the Trinity in equal terms, and exclusively as symbols. This makes these windows the more accurate depiction of the Trinity. According to Trinitarian theology, the Trinity is three persons in one God; therefore, each person of the Trinity should be depicted as equal in works of art.
In conclusion, the Trinity Windows of East Lake United Methodist Church are a great depiction of the Trinity that contains many interesting details. These windows have a storied history, whether it is about the images included or their creation. This history helps create a better understanding of the Trinity as well as East Lake United Methodist Church. Furthermore, the depiction of the Trinity as equal symbols in the Trinity Windows separates them from other works of art depicting the Trinity.
Medium: Stained Glass
Designer and Manufacturer: Willet Stained Glass Studios of Philadelphia
Location: East Lake United Methodist Church, 7753 1st Avenue South, Birmingham, Alabama, 35206
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Stefon, Matt, and William Richey Hogg. “The Holy Trinity.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 10 Sept. 2020, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Christianity/The-Holy-Trinity.
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“Trinity’s Stained Glass Windows.” Trinity Episcopal Church – Towson, Maryland, 28 Mar. 2019, http://www.trinitychurchtowson.org/trinity-stained-glass-windows/.
Sources for Further Information:
Guthrie, Emily. The Spirit of One Hundred Years: a History of East Lake United Methodist Church. Publisher Not Identified, 1986.
Letham, Robert. The Holy Trinity: in Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship. P&R Publishing, 2019.
Olson, Roger E., and Christopher Alan Hall. The Trinity. Eerdmans, 2002.
Davis Domescik ’24 is a student in the first-year seminar on Religious Images in Birmingham (UCCA 102) in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in Fall 2020.
Published November 21, 2020.