Images and Symbols for God.

Mt. St. HelensA volcano as one image of God may be startling to some people but it contains several of the elements often used in Scripture to represent God. (This photo of St. Helens is from the USGS. click on it or here to see a larger photo.)


Exod. 19:16- 19 "On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder." NRSV

Exod. 24:15- 17 "When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the LORD called to Moses from within the cloud. To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain." NIV.


Not only is fire mentioned above but it is also present in the descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:3) and the "burning bush". Exod. 3:2 "There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed." NRSV

A cloud as a symbol of the presence of God appears often. Psalm 18:11-13. "He made darkness his covering around him, his canopy thick clouds dark with water. Out of the brightness before him there broke through his clouds hailstones and coals of fire. The LORD also thundered in the heavens, and the Most High uttered his voice." Matt. 17:5 "While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, 'This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!'" NRSV. See also the transfiguration at Mark 9:7.

Exod. 40:34-38. "Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on each stage of their journey; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey."

The Mountain is mentioned in the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-2), the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:1), and a resurrection account (Matt. 28:16). The mountain is not God, but a place of nearness to God. The Prophet Isaiah too sees "God's Holy Mountain" as the place where God is. Is. 11:9, Isa. 56:7, Isa. 57:13 "But whoever takes refuge in me shall possess the land and inherit my holy mountain." NRSV.

Thunder and Lightening are associated with God in Psalm 18:13-14. "The LORD also thundered in the heavens, and the Most High uttered his voice. And he sent out his arrows, and scattered them; he flashed forth lightnings, and routed them. God's voice is associated with thunder in John 12:27-29. "Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say, 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." Job 37:2-5. "Listen, listen to the thunder of his voice and the rumbling that comes from his mouth. Under the whole heaven he lets it loose, and his lightning to the corners of the earth. After it his voice roars; he thunders with his majestic voice and he does not restrain the lightnings when his voice is heard. God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend." NRSV.

(If you find volcanoes interesting take a look at our Cascade Volcano page.)

An Image of God as He Creates.

God Creating.The problem with using symbols is they cannot convey complex emotions, attitudes or ideas. The only way to do this is to use the human form, which is why the artist wants to use the human image to represent God. People looking at the expression and body language of a person in a painting subconsciously understand some things the person represented is thinking, or feeling. Looking at Michelangelo's images representing God creating is more satisfying and even more appropriate than looking at a volcano. Why? God is alive; He thinks, feels, and communicates. We are like Him, at least in our spirit. We all know that God the Father, the Creator, is different; but we also know that in some way we are also like Him. Gen. 1:27 "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." NRSV.

This image of God is from the Sistine Chapel. It is God creating the sun and stars. As you look at it can you feel His power and concentration? Is this a weakling? Someone to trifle with? Is this a person of power acting with purpose? Would it be valuable to know the purpose of God and take it into account?

The iconoclasts tried to remove religious art that sought to represent God. However, the Church decided that such art could be permitted. Although our Protestant friends often disagree, these items have long been a part of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. See, The Council of Nicaea (7th Ecumenical,787 AD), and Catholic Teaching on Religious Art.


God as He creates Adam.

This image is Michelangelo's "God Creating Adam". Again, does he seem to be concentrating? Is there a hint of power present and movement? Notice the hair and beard. It looks like He is facing into a high wind with the hair streaming back behind Him. Would this be one way for the artist to communicate that power is indeed present and working with wind as a side effect? Why wind?

Gen. 1:2-3. "[T]he earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light.". NRSV.

Wind was also prominent on the day that God, the Holy Spirit, came and created the church. Acts 2:1-2. "When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting." NRSV.

For another conception of God creating, see Blake's Ancient of Days.

The images of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel are used with the permission of the owner of the copyright, Christus Rex. Images and text are displayed here for religious and educational purposes only. No other use is intended or permitted. Everything is presented "as is" without warrently expressed or implied. Original text is by Roger J. Smith, copyright 1997.

Unless attributed to someone else, the scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

I am not an art critic or artist. I just invite others to think about the message presented by the work of art and then in meditation reflect on its application in your life. In addition, use your imagination. Put yourself in the position of one of the people depicted and feel what they feel. A painting may have tremendous spiritual meaning for you whether or not the artist intended it, or the art critics would agree. If you find meaning, work with that meaning thanking God.

This web page is the responsibility of Rev. Roger J. Smith, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Comments can be sent to him. To see our many other pages click on home below.

Art in Meditation
Awaken to Prayer
Index to all parish web pages.