Idols of the mind; or, what on earth does God look like?

Jonathan Willis

Term has ended, I’m organising a big conference next week, and I also urgently need to start writing the paper I am giving at said conference; so what better time, I thought, to write a blog post on an entirely unrelated topic? Frankly, it was either this or finally write that book review I’ve been putting off for weeks…

This post is about God; or more specifically, about what God looks like; or, more specifically still, about how people may have thought about and/or visualised God in Reformation England. I’ve been thinking about this for some time, largely related to different aspects of my work on the ten commandments. First of all, the commandments as a whole derived much (let’s not beat around the bush, pretty much all) of their authority from the fact that they had been given by God himself. Exodus 19 describes how God came down upon mount Sinai in ‘thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount’. He ‘descended’ upon the mountain ‘in fire’ and delivered his commandments. Afterwards, Moses, Arron, Nadab, Abihu and seventy elders came up the mountain to see God, although only Moses himself was given leave to come near to God. Exodus 24:10 describes the supernatural encounter:

And they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness.

Several chapters later, Exodus 31:18 describes another pivotal moment, the point at which the commandments were passed to Moses:

And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.


Blake’s vision of God, writing the Commandments

God’s presence in Exodus is suitably awe-inspiring and mysterious, cloaked as it is in fire, earthquakes, trumpets and smoke. But for the careful reader and listener there are some rather intriguing human details. Firstly, God spoke. Now we in the twenty-first century have seen and read enough works of science-fiction and fantasy fiction to imagine a booming voice emitting from nowhere, or perhaps beaming telepathically directly into our heads. But for most early moderns, surely a voice would have implied a mouth, a tongue, a head… Exodus 24:10 talks of a sapphire pavement under God’s feet, and perhaps most crucially, the ten commandments are described as having been written with the finger of God.There is a marvellous depiction of God doing precisely that, engraving stone tablets with his right index finger extended like some sort of divine welding torch, by the romantic poet and painter William Blake. But such a depiction would have been unthinkable in Reformation England, because of the great weight placed upon the commandments themselves, and in particular the first, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’, and the second. Exodus 20:4 stated quite clearly,

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

Michaelangelo's God as shown creating Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Michaelangelo’s God as shown creating Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

This is in large part a familiar story. Depictions of God the Father as a white-bearded old man (like the rather famous one above) were out in Protestant Reformation England, and so imaginative painters, printmakers and carvers resorted to figurative alternatives like the Hebrew ‘tetragrammaton’:

YHWH, or 'Yaweh', in Hebrew

YHWH, or ‘Yaweh’, in Hebrew

People recognised this as a symbolic depiction of God, the newest element of a longstanding visual language which recognised that rays of light and prominent doves could function as representations of the holy spirit, and that indeed Christ could be represented as a lamb, or by the ‘holy monogram’ IHS and other Christograms.

But people recognised the lamb and the holy name as symbols. They did not think that Christ was a sheep – the bible was rather insistent on the fact that he had been both God and man. So when people saw the tetragrammaton, or heard references to God’s voice, and feet, and fingers, what could they do but picture somebody in the form of a man, a man old enough to be the ‘father’ of the ‘son’ who had died for their sins? It is therefore easy to see an unresolved tension in the way in which most writers discussed the second commandment, with its absolute ban on images of the divine directly contradicted by the partial painting of a picture of God in words, through references to hands, feet, mouth, voice, and other physical elements of fleshy human bodies.

While most ministers and godly authors like Samuel Purchas and John Brinsley were happy to speak of a law ‘renued by the voice and finger of God on Mount Sinai’,[1] or of ‘the Ten Commandements written by the Lords owne finger’,[2] others recognised this inherent contradiction and were more careful. Calvin, in his sermons on Deuteronomy, explained that while God had chosen to write his law on stone tables with his own finger, we should not believe

that God hath anie hands: but that the holy scripture speaketh so by a resemblance as if it were saide, the lawe was note written or ingrauen by mans hand: but God approoued and ratified it by way of miracle.[3]

Not many people could maintain such a rigid division in their heads, however, and occasionally idols of the mind could be made partially manifest. I want to share just two examples today. The first, taken from a rare Elizabethan commandment board hanging in a Hampshire church, shows what is unmistakeably a divine hand, fully formed with four celestial fingers and a god-like thumb, handing the ten commandments out of the sky to a kneeling Moses.


The second, knowledge of which I very gratefully owe to University of Birmingham PhD student Susan Orlik, is the baleful eye of God staring down at the occupants of an astonishing family pew in a Berkshire church, the pupil of which is inscribed with the words deus videt – God watches.


If any monster readers have come across any interesting, unusual or incongruous representations or descriptions of, or references to, God, I’d be very interested to hear about them here!

[1] Samuel Purchas, Purchas his pilgrimage (1613), p. 17.

[2] John Brinsley, The fourth part of the true watch containing prayers and teares for the churches (1624), p. 78.

[3] Jean Calvin, The sermons of M. Iohn Caluin vpon the fifth booke of Moses called Deuteronomie, trans. Arthur Golding (1583), p. 391.

18 thoughts on “Idols of the mind; or, what on earth does God look like?

  1. It’s a bit sad that I’m the first to answer my own question, but in writing up aforementioned conference paper, I’ve just been reminded that John Bale’s 1548 ‘Comedy concernynge thre lawes’ has as a character ‘Deus pater’. And of course there is the mystery tradition, which has been touched on by the ‘monster before, and persisted for a surprising amount of time in some places: that also often called for a theatrical representation of God the Father.

  2. One of my favourite post-Reformation ‘alternative’ representations of God is painted on a tin-glazed plate in the British Museum dated 1648. It has a scene of Adam and Eve’s fall with God depicted as a flaming sun with a face and on a scroll issuing from the mouth is the text: ADAM: ADAM: WHARE: ART THO(U). Can’t upload an image here but it is fig.140 in my book. I’ve suggested that use of the sun in place of God might have been suggested by psalm 84:11 ‘for the Lord God is the sun and shield’. Other thoughts?

    • Thank you for this Tara, that sounds like a brilliant (not to mention arresting) image, I’ll have to take a look when I’m back in the office! That’s also a really interesting point, about why God is specifically represented as the sun (this is also the case in the Tivetshall St Margaret royal arms/commandment board, although there the sun contains the word ‘deus’, rather than an actual face!). My hunch would be that this has its roots quite far back, possibly even in terms of pagan/Christian syncretism – for example, in the linguistic linkage of ‘Sunday’ as the ‘Lord’s day’, On Sinai, God’s presence is bright and blinding to the point that when Moses returns from speaking with God, his face is literally glowing. In terms of representations of the holy spirit as a beam of light, it also makes sense that that should be emanating from a more powerful light source. But that’s probably the strongest scriptural justification I’ve ever come across.

      • Thanks for a great post Jonathan. You mention the mystery plays above, and I won’t bore you by going on yet again about the fact that there might be a connection between the way that craftsmen represented angels and what they might have seen at a play, but I think this surely must have been something that influenced people’s perceptions of the ineffable (why else would an angel be depicted opening a gate?). Further evidence: Christopher Marsh and Eamon Duffy both relate the tale of the old man in James I’s reign who was asked about Jesus, and who responded that he knew of him, because had seen him in a play at Kendal – to this Lancastrian he was a ‘man on a tree’, with ‘blood that ran down’. (Duffy, Stripping, p. 68; Marsh, Popular Religion, p. 101).

        And thanks to you and Tara for some really interesting comments about God as the sun – I remembering reading about the convention of ‘gilding’ the faces of God and the angels in the mysteries, so there are some more parallels there. Of course masking also helps to disguise the features and depersonalise the actor too.

    • Thank you Gavin, that’s a really interesting point. The larger image from which the detail I posted was taken has a caption, ‘Moses take ins ye commandementes in mount sinai’, and Exodus itself describes them as being handed to him directly by God, so that’s certainly what I’m assuming, although the scriptural reference is to a different verse, Ex.31:13. I haven’t come across those images on Parliamentary flags (it’s a little late for my current project, which ends around 1625), but I’d be really grateful if you could point me towards an example. As you say, if they’re representing physical aspects of God it’s an even more powerful example of the theological double-think that is perhaps more common than we’ve usually recognised.

      • Gavin – that’s intriguing. Like Jonathan, I would love to see some examples. I think that there is a strong connection between the ‘hand’ and ‘arm’ of God and the notion of providential protection – many Elizabethan prayers call on God to stretch out his ‘holy hand’ to protect the military, or to defend the nation with ‘thy strong and mighty arm’. Evidently the image had popular currency.

      • There are two examples (one royalist, one parliamentarian) in the plates of Christopher L. Scott, Alan Turton, and Eric Gruber von Arni, Edgehill: The Battle Reinterpreted (Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2004), but it doesn’t cite any sources for them. In both, the arm is wearing armour and holding a sword. The royalist one seems to reference Romans 13 too, as the motto is ‘reddite caesari’, and it has some other hands reaching up to a crown. Sir Arthur Heselrig’s flag had an anchor coming down from a cloud, with the motto ‘only in heaven’.

  3. Thank you Laura! When I first wrote the post, I’d completely forgotten about dramatic representations, but they must have exerted a powerful hold over people. It wasn’t just Calvin who denied that God had physical characteristics – William Burton also stressed that God was able to speak without actually needing a mouth or being ‘like a man’. Instead, God ‘spoke’ by secret inspiration, by his works, through the ministry of angels, or ‘when he vttered a voice or caused a sounde, which the people might vnderstande’, which he could do without a mouth. ‘Yea, for although man could not, nor cannot, yet God can, who made al things of nothing, to whom nothing is impossible’. Yet how many people, even godly ministers, were able to think about God without picturing some sort of physical form…?

    Gavin, those references to emblem devices are really fascinating. I’d be wary of saying that all arms coming from clouds are necessarily God – they could be angels, after all – but the scriptural quotations you mention do seem to suggest that they probably are. I’m particularly intrigued by the prospect of God not only in physical form, but armed and armoured like a man as well. That raises all sorts of interesting theological issues: why does an omnipotent deity need weapons and protection?!

    Just on the ten commandments again, there’s an interesting parallel between these disembodied arms and Lucas Cranach’s painting of the same subject. This dates from 1516, just before the Luther affair, and proves the point nicely that the commandments weren’t totally forgotten before the reformation. Even so, here in the top left corner we see God as the traditional, bearded old man, handing the commandments down to Moses. Surely it’s not unrealistic to suppose that when later protestants saw a disembodied arm, they imagined somebody like this attached to the other end of it!


  4. Perhaps an even more thoroughly embodied biblical story is Genesis 3:8, in which God walks in the garden in the cool of the day, and when Adam and Eve hide themselves. Here He must certainly not only have feet to walk, but a sensitivity to heat and imperfect vision that might seem at odds which omnipotence. So God has feet, eyes, and skin, all of which are notably imperfect.

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  6. In my lay-person internet research for an historical novel the popularity of puppet shows would seem relevant…that puppet theatre wasn’t banned 1641 onwards because of its effectiveness teaching bible stories…Marionettes in church – angels especially – and Jesus is God from cradle to Resurrection. My husband said baby Jesus was given a monkey – really a ploy to have some laughs.. has there been any work on this?
    Being a travelling puppeteer I am keen to write my own Bartholomews fair and/or church nativity with flying angels.

  7. St Ninians, near Penrith, maintained by Church Conservation Trust. All as rebuilt in 1660. A plaque, ten
    commandments under, on the wall above Altar. This is a sun with Yaweh symbol, as you show. CCT does
    not know of another like it. First view, thought of Egypt. On Archaeo trip soon after 9/11. Much to ourselves
    Found Egyptians and Coptic church in Ireland. Some evidence in Scotland/Cumbria.. Ref. Jesus in the
    Sun Throughout History by D.M. Murdock. …..Ancient Israel overlap Sun/Yahweh.
    Have I found a connection between Ancient Egypt and Penrith?
    Would like to send photos etc.

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