The Coronation of the Virgin by the Holy Trinity

A conversation between Dr. Kathryn Santner and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank in front of The Coronation of the Virgin by the Holy Trinity, 18th century, oil and gold on canvas, Cuzco, Peru, 78.105 x 59.055 cm (Collection of the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation)

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Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:06] We’re in Chicago at the Thoma collection, looking at a painting of the Virgin Mary as she’s crowned by three individuals who look exactly the same, and they are identified as the Trinity.

[0:18] This painting in some ways is trying to help viewers understand what the Trinity is. It might strike us as odd that we would have the Trinity displayed as what essentially reads to our eye as triplets.

[0:31] Accompanying the Virgin Mary and the Trinity are two saints, Saint Augustine of Hippo and Saint Bonaventure, both of whom wrote about the Trinity in their lifetimes.

Dr. Kathryn Santner: [0:41] At the bottom right, we see Saint Augustine, who is identifiable not only by his bishop’s crosier and pectoral cross but most notably by the flaming heart he holds in his right hand.

[0:53] At left, we see Saint Bonaventure writing in a book with a quill, in his cardinal’s vestments. The biblical precedent for the idea of the Trinity as three men comes from the Book of Genesis, where Abraham is in the desert and three men approach. Abraham is wise enough to recognize them as God, and so offers them hospitality.

[1:15] In return, they thank him by foretelling the birth of his son, Isaac. Biblical exegetes like Augustine and Bonaventure called on that episode in imagining the nature of the Trinity.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:28] In fact, in one of Augustine’s treatises, which was called “On the Trinity,” he writes “Since three men appeared and no one of them is said to be greater than the rest either in form, or age, or power, why should we not here understand the equity of the Trinity, and one and the same substance in three persons?”

[1:47] What he’s getting at is that the Trinity is essentially three persons in one godhead, and artists like this artist in 18th century Peru is part of a tradition of artists trying to figure out how to express that visually.

Dr. Santner: [2:01] Each of these three figures has radiating from his head a halo that takes the form of a triangle, once again representing the idea of three in one.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:13] And this is but one version of how artists show the Trinity, as triplets.

Dr. Santner: [2:18] Another way of displaying this concept of what is known as the triune God or three persons or three deities in one is known as the trifacial Trinity, in which one man is shown with three faces, and his is something we see commonly in the Andes in this period.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:35] In this version, there are subtle ways that artists distinguish between the different persons who form the Trinity.

Dr. Santner: [2:43] At the left, we see Christ, distinguishable by the wounds in his hands and feet. On the right, we see God the Father, who’s recognizable by the scepter in his left hand. At the center is the Holy Spirit, and you’ll notice that his body is the least realized. He’s obscured by the celestial glow that emanates from Mary.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:05] Here they are, placing this elaborate golden crown on her head in recognition of her status as the queen of heaven. It’s a wonderful encapsulation of this complex theological concept paired with the crowning of the Virgin in heaven.

Dr. Santner: [3:22] At the center of the composition, we have the Virgin kneeling. She’s up in celestial space, in the heavens. She’s holding her hands apart in a gesture of piety as the three members of the Trinity place a crown on her head. She has long, loose curls, and she’s wearing a beautiful blue mantle.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:42] We can see that the artist is showing her knees as she’s kneeling. We can just see that with light and shadow to give the sense of her body taking up space. Then this brocateado design is almost superimposed on that, giving this interesting tension between the three-dimensionality of her body and this flattening that occurs from that design.

[4:03] And I’m struck, not just by her dress, but the careful way that the artist has painted other golden additions. Look at the halos around the heads of each of the three figures of the Trinity. They’re so delicately painted, and then that’s picked up in this very fine detailing on the edges of the robes that they wear.

Dr. Santner: [4:22] You can see at the cuffs and hems of all of their robes this delicate and detailed lacework that’s been brought through with just white paint.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:31] Showing the Trinity in this way, or as the trifacial Trinity, was not always met positively. At different moments in time, especially in Europe, the trifacial Trinity in particular, but even this version, is disapproved of, and at one point will be censored by the Pope.

[4:48] Yet you find that it has a very healthy life that extends beyond that in the Spanish viceroyalties. Now, while we don’t know exactly where this painting was displayed or who owned it, there are certain features that allow us to associate it with Cusco, a city in Peru, and especially what has been called the Cusco School of painting.

Dr. Santner: [5:09] The gold work on the textiles, known as brocateado, is a hallmark of painting from 18th-century Cusco. The pale faces with crimson cheeks are another feature of this school. The inclusion of mauve, red, and blue also hearken back to the workshops of this period.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:28] The Cusco School was a group of Indigenous painters from Cusco who joined together after they were evicted from the painting guild by non-Indigenous people, primarily by Spaniards.

[5:40] So we have a painting that’s not only possibly associated with this group of painters in Cusco, but one that belongs to a very large body of works from across the Spanish viceroyalties that showed this subject and testifies to the longevity of this subject long after it fell out of favor in Europe.

[5:58] [music]

Thoma Foundation’s Art of the Spanish Americas collection

Learn more about the Cuzco School of Painting

Learn more about engraved sources for paintings in colonial Andean art on Project on the Engraved Sources of Spanish Colonial Art

Carol Damian, “Artist and Patron in Colonial Cuzco: Workshops, Contracts, and a Petition for Independence,” Colonial Latin American Historical Review 4, no. 1 (1995): pp. 25–53

María del Consuelo Maquivar, De lo permitido a lo prohibido: Iconografía de la Santísima Trinidad en la Nueva España (Mexico City: Miguel Ángel Porrúa/ INAH, 2006)

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Kathryn Santner, "The Coronation of the Virgin by the Holy Trinity," in Smarthistory, November 11, 2021, accessed June 21, 2024,