IMAGINING THE UNIMAGINABLE: The Trinity as the Throne of Mercy in ecclesiastical art

IMAGINING THE UNIMAGINABLE: The Trinity as the Throne of Mercy in ecclesiastical art

‘Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man and then I will show you a man that can comprehend God’ – John Wesley

At the core of the Catholic faith is the belief in one God and three persons. The mystery of the Trinity has sparked fascination and debate over ages. Artists too have attempted to express this mystic marvel in novel ways since centuries. One such depiction is that of the ‘Throne of Mercy’ which was popular in the West during the Middle Ages. The iconography of the theme includes the crucified Christ at the center held by the majestic seated profile of God the Father. A radiant dove hovers above, symbolizing the Holy Spirit.

An embroidered representation of this theme is found on the French styled chasuble displayed currently at the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum. Executed gracefully in petit point, this chasuble is a testimony to the exceptional meticulous skill of embroidery practiced by artisans and patronized by the Church. Gothic arches bedecked with floral spandrels and inlaid with pineapples augment its elegance. A testimony to European art, the pineapple signifies regeneration and eternal life.

The front side of the chasuble is guitar shaped while the reverse is rectangular in form. The obverse orphery band is segmented into three parts distinguished by the words ‘Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus’ which can be translated as ‘Holy Holy Holy’. Within the central reserve, an angel, footed onto billows of clouds, holds a plaque with the insignia IHS, signifying the name of Christ. 

A cross-shaped orphrey in appliqué adorns the back of the chasuble. Within the central portion is the image of the Throne of Mercy.  Here we are drawn towards the rendering of God the Father. He is crowned with a papal tiara and encircled with a glistened halo. Within the halo are embroidered the words ‘EGO.SUM.A.O.PRINC.EFFIN’ which translates as ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End’.

In early Christian art the representation of God the Father was avoided.  At the most God would be identified through the symbol of a Hand emerging from stylized clouds. This depiction took a human appearance in the Middle Ages. God the Father was now portrayed as an old man with a long white beard. This grouping was common until its prohibition by the Council of Trent.

Coming back to the Chasuble, right below the Throne of Mercy is placed an angel holding a plaque with the abbreviations ‘P.A and SS’. The abbreviation P.A stands for Prothonotary Apostolic, a title given to prelates without jurisdiction. This indicates that the vestment belonged to a Monsignor of the Archdiocese of Bombay.

A glimpse into eternity, the Throne of Mercy emphasizes that God is love. It visualizes John 3:16: ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him may not perish but have eternal life.’ It glorifies the essence of the Eucharist, of God sacrificing His ‘only begotten Son’ for mankind. The Holy Spirit is the agent of transubstantiation. Thus it is fitting that this image was embroidered on the chasuble, the principal liturgical garment used during Mass. Its theme and style, its simplicity and opulence, its material and technology echoes the sounds of the community as they sing ‘Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus’ and partake in most Sacred Mystery!

Joynel Fernandes 

Asst. Director – Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

The Museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 9am to 5pm.

For a guided tour please contact 022 – 29271557



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