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Icon Windows: Rublev’s Trinity

I was interested to discover the other day that the feast of Pentecost inPhoto showing Icon "The Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles" the Orthodox Church is actually a two-day festival: the first day of Pentecost – the Sunday – is called Trinity Day, when the icon of the Holy Trinity is brought out for veneration, while the icon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles is displayed on the second day – the Monday – which is dedicated to the Holy Spirit and is called the Spirit Day. There isn’t space to consider the second of these icons here in any detail, but it’s striking how the two images, appropriately enough, share an emphasis on unity in multiplicity. The icon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit shows the apostles calmly seated together, some turning towards each other as though quietly talking. Their overlapping bodies seem to almost merge into one – the body of the Church – and their spiritual unity is seen as the reversal of the division of the nations brought about in the episode of the Tower of Babel in the book of Genesis. As the iconographer Leonid Ouspensky puts it: “being the fulfilment of the revelation concerning the Holy Trinity, [Pentecost] represents the culminating moment of the formation of the Church. […] Thus, according to the likeness of the Holy Trinity, undivided and distinct, there is formed a new being, the holy Church, one in its being but multiple in persons…”

Andrei Rublev and St Sergius of Radonezh

The icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev seems to me to be an almost miraculous solution to the age-old problem of how to represent the Trinity in visual form (without resorting to a completely different visual language such as the abstract symbolism of so-called ‘Celtic’ Christian art). At some point in the early 15th century Rublev – one of the few iconographers in history whose name we know, and who is indeed venerated as a saint in the Orthodox Church – was commissioned to paint an icon on this theme (as well as a whole iconostasis) for the Trinity Monastery of St Sergius outside Moscow, where he may have been a monk. The monastery had been founded by St Sergius of Radonezh (1314-92), an ascetic who left no writings but inspired something of a monastic revival through his exemplary life of poverty and humility – many affectionate titles have been attributed to him through the centuries, including that of the Abbot of Russia.

It’s recorded that on feast days, or whenever Rublev and his assistant were not actually working, they ‘sat before the holy venerable icons’ already in use in the monastery church, ‘looking at them without distraction and constantly raising their minds and spirits to the divine immaterial light.’ That last phrase echoes the concept of the uncreated light of the Transfiguration which was crucial to the form of contemplative prayer known as hesychasm being taught in Byzantine and Russian monasteries in the 14th century. It’s also an evocative description of how essential it was to the creative process in question for the artist to be thoroughly immersed in the iconographic tradition, already a thousand years old, which Rublev would no doubt have seen as far more important than his own creative individuality. An Orthodox view of this icon would be to regard it as the culminating achievement of a great collective endeavour of prayer, not as a unique work of personal genius in the Western sense.

Rublev’s The Hospitality of Abraham or the Holy Trinity

Photo showing Rublev's "The Holy Trinity"

The harmonious unity of the icon’s composition, which is so immediately striking, was the end-product of a gradual process of theological as well as artistic development. The icon is in fact sometimes known as the Hospitality of Abraham, as it is derived from earlier versions of this theme in which the biblical narrative is still elaborated with a fair amount of visual detail, but by the time we get to Rublev’s version, Abraham is no where to be seen. The scriptural sources is the episode in Genesis chapter 18 in which three mysterious visitors or pilgrims (depicted as angels in the icon tradition) turn up outside Abraham’s tent, and Abraham and his wife Sarah hurry to prepare a meal for them according to the custom of desert hospitality. The curious thing about the three visitors is that as they prophesy that Sarah will give birth to a son they somehow speak with one voice, and Abraham addresses them together as Lord. Christian theologians eagerly seized on the story as a pre-incarnational revelation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and also saw it as providing a possible solution to a serious iconographical problem. The Incarnation had provided justification for the representation of God the Son, but it was still argued that the Father and the Holy Spirit had not taken flesh, and so could not be depicted. However, it was thought that the story of the hospitality of Abraham represented at least an epiphany of the whole Trinity, and so provided a legitimate opportunity to explore the doctrinal mystery in visual terms. Rublev’s composition is the ultimate simplification of the narrative, though even here certain background details are retained such as Abraham’s ‘house’ and the tree of Mamre. At any rate, Rublev’s vision of the Trinity soon came to be accepted as definitive -n the Council of One Hundred Chapters in 1551 decreed that all future icons of this subject should take the Rublev as their authoritative model.

Levels of Meaning

The icon is full of heavenly light, in the sense of luminosity of colour, and of gravity-free lightness in the ascending lines of the drawing. The complete absence of shadows increases the sense of immateriality, as do the long flowing lines depicting the angelic bodies – the proportion of the size of the head to that of the rest of the body was conventionally 1 to 7, but here that seems to have been considerably extended. All three bodies are also turned at a kind of three-quarter angle, which means that their shoulders are foreshortened so as not to jut out and interrupt the abstract fluency of the contours. And the three figures seem to be inscribed within a perfect circle, creating a sense of perpetual movement as well as sacred stillness.

Through this rarefied visual language, designed as it is to transport the viewer beyond the earthly plane altogether, the icon can be interpreted on at least three levels of meaning of increasing profundity. The first level is the biblical narrative from Genesis as I’ve just outlined, which contains its own metaphors of offering hospitality to the divine guest or guests. The second, implicit in the omission of the Old Testament figures, is the way in which the Trinity acted as one in accomplishing the salvation of humanity – the image may be read as a kind of heavenly council at which the three Persons of God conceive their plan of redemptive action. On this level, background details take on a different significance – Abraham’s dwelling is transformed into the temple, or possibly the Church as the body of Christ, the tree of Mamre where the biblical narrative is set becomes the Tree of Life, with possible overtones of the Cross as well; while the strange cliff or mountain on the right seems to stand for the whole earthly realm. As for the feast set before the three visitors, it has been reduced to a single chalice, containing a lamb, referring to ‘the lamb that has been slain from before the foundation of the world’ (apparently this tiny lamb was revealed when a later overpainting of a bunch of grapes were removed). Thirdly, Rublev intimates a still deeper level of meaning which is that much harder to articulate in words, and that is the mystical life of divine love into which the beholder is invited, in which it might be possible fore the beholder to participate.

God in Three Persons

It may not be immediately clear which ‘angel’ represents which Person of the Trinity. The right hand figure has always been agreed to be the Holy Spirit, but there has been occasional disagreement as to whether the central figure is the Son or the Father. For me the decisive factor is the clothing – the central figure is dressed in a tunic of dark earthly red, with a heavenly blue mantel cascading over the left shoulder – in other words, exactly as Christ is almost invariably symbolically dressed throughout the Byzantine tradition. Rowan Williams has cautioned against identifying each angel too exclusively with one or other of the divine Persons, but also suggests that the central position of Christ corresponds to the idea that the Trinity could not be known at all except through the Incarnation. So it seems appropriate that our eye is drawn immediately to the central figure first, by the radiance of the full-length colours. It seems to have been a conscious decision on Rublev’s part to distribute that celestial blue amongst all three figures, inflecting it differently in each according to the accompanying colours. In the case of the Holy Spirit on the right, it reads as a sky blue against a bright spring-like green; in the case of the Father on the left, it is interwoven with an almost unnameable rosy hue suggestive of the majestic indefinability of the Father’s being.

At the same time the icon seems so designed that our eye cannot come to rest on any one of the figures but is drawn into a kind of perpetual movement from one to the other – Williams states that, ‘in its refusal toPhoto highlighting the chalice and martyrs' relics on the table give us a static place to look, [the icon] embodies more than any words could possibly do the nature of the doctrine to which it witnesses.’ However our eye may choose to travel around the composition, it seems to me that we are gradually drawn towards the bare altar-like table and the chalice at its center as a focal point – maybe this chalice is in fact at the heart of the meaning of the image, as shown by the way all three figures are gathered around it as if gravitating towards it. Again it’s the central figure, the Son, whose hand we notice first, making the traditional gesture of blessing typical of so many icons of Christ, but here not raised up but lowered over the chalice. Then we see that his gesture is echoing that of the left-hand figure, the Father, and that these two are exchanging a gaze, the meaning of which is of course hard to put into words, but into which we could perhaps read a kind of divine mutual agreement, as if Christ is accepting his sacrificial role to be carried out on earth. The right-hand figure, the Holy Spirit, can seem almost withdrawn from this exchange of the other two, or merely echoing in his posture the kind of submission to the Father’s will that the Son is also showing. At any rate, his right hand we see is pointing downward, or ‘earthward’, as the four-square table is often taken as a symbol of the earth – this gesture seems to imply a connection with the other icon of Pentecost, the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles.

An Invitation to the Viewer?

Immediately below the chalice is a small, rectangular opening, which represents the niche traditionally inserted into the front of an altar to contain martyrs’ relics. It’s often remarked that this icon is a particularly powerful example of what is called ‘inverse perspective’, which means that lines of perspective (most noticeably in the thrones) converge, not at a vanishing point in the distance but in front of the image, i.e. where the viewer is standing. This not only has the effect of bringing the sacred figures closer to the viewer’s space but seems to almost invite the viewer’s participation in the scene. In this case it’s as though a place has been left for us at the table! We are thus invited to participate in the divine life – the one condition, suggested by that inconspicuous niche of relics, being a readiness to lay down our own life as a witness to the eternal sacrifice of God.

Andrew Paterson