Saint Andrei Rublev's icon of the Holy Trinity: an invitation to enter into the mysteries expressed in the Creed
We were back in Romania recently for a family visit. There you find that every surface of the churches – including the walls and ceilings, sometimes the outside surfaces as well as inside surfaces – are covered with images from Scripture and the lives of the saints. But these images aren’t just to make the churches look pretty or to remind worshippers of stories from the past.
In the Creed, we are reminded of the communion of saints, that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and this given visible expression in the frescoes and icons in churches throughout the world. In the Pastoral Epistles, we are reminded that when we worship the saints are invisibly alongside us, “in every place lifting holy hands” (I Timothy 2: 8). When we look around and see these friends surrounding us, it is as if for a moment the veil is lifted, and we see what a great company of believers we are part of.
But there are some things that are not depicted in Orthodox churches. There is an important safeguard in the tradition of Christian sacred art that keeps us from descending into idolatry. The reason for this is that we ought not to make images of things that God has not shown us. In the Orthodox tradition, you can write an icon of Christ, because he was born and walked on this earth. But you seldom see an icon of the Trinity. Instead, the Trinity is often symbolised geometrically, by a triangle or triquetra.
There is one point in Scripture, however, when God is revealed in three persons simultaneously, and sometimes that event is depicted as a representation of the Trinity. At the baptism of Jesus, we see Jesus, and we see the Holy Spirit as a dove, but we only hear the voice of God. The one time when the Trinity is revealed simultaneously is in Genesis 18: 1-16 in the story of the Visitation of Abraham: “The Lord appeared to [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him” (Genesis 18: 1-2).
The story in Genesis does not encourage us to fix too closely on distinctions between the three visitors. “They” speak to Abraham, but later it is “the Lord” who is speaking. “The men” depart, but “Abraham still stood before the Lord.” The three visitors or angels who appear to Abraham and Sarah are a visitation from the Lord – God has appeared to them in the form of three persons.
Andrei Rublev and his icon
One of the most famous representations of this story is in Andrei Rublev’s icon often known as “The Old Testament Trinity.” I have copies of this icon over my desk in my study at home and in my study at the Church of Ireland Theological College. It must be the best-known and most-admired icon among Western Christians. It was written in 1411 by Andrei Rublev (Андрéй Рублёв) (ca 1360/1370-ca 1430), a Russian monk who is considered the greatest mediaeval Russian writer of icons and frescoes. He first comes to attention in 1405, when he was writing icons and frescoes for the Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin, Moscow, alongside Theophanes the Greek, from Constantinople. But the only work authenticated as entirely his is the icon of the Old Testament Trinity (ca 1410), now in the Tretyakov Gallery on Moscow.
Rublev worked with lightness, clarity, an ethereal touch that few could match, and a great sense of freshness, combining the highest asceticism with the classic harmony of Byzantine manners. The characters in his icons and frescoes are always peaceful and calm. After some time his work came to be perceived as the ideal in Orthodox iconography. In 1988, he was declared a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church, which celebrates his memory on 4 July.
When his abbot, Saint Sergius of Radonezh, died, Rublev wrote this icon to hang over his tomb.Sometimes, in icons presenting the Old Testament Trinity, Abraham and Sarah are seen in the background, holding plates of food. In those cases, the icon is known as “The Hospitality of Abraham.” But in Rublev’s icon, the three figures sit alone.
Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity is a profound symbol of Trinitarian love, and draws the beholder into the communio personarum of the Trinity. It is often used in discussions of the mystery of the Trinity, and in his preface to The Trinity and the Kingdom, Jurgen Moltmann acknowledges Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity as his inspiration for writing this book.
The three faces are identical and help us to understand the nature of the Trinity. Theologians would warn us against distinguishing the three into separate bodies as this suggests division, rather than the unity of the Trinity. It would be safer, perhaps, to understand that all three together somehow represent the Trinity. But the three figures are enclosed in an artist’s circle, illustrating the co-inherence of the Trinity. Each figure wear a blue garment – the colour of the heavens – but each wears something that speaks of their own identity.
Setting the scene
The scene in Rubelv's icon comes from Genesis 18: 1-15. Three mysterious strangers visit Abraham, and he hastily orders his servants to prepare a meal for them, and he treats the three with great reverence. The guests are described simply as three men, but when Abraham addresses them, they respond in unison (the author of Genesis writes “they said”).
Curiously, at times only one of the men addresses Abraham, and when he does he is named as the Lord. The Lord appeared to Abraham, but when he looks out of his tent to see who is there, he sees three men. The author makes no mention of Abraham being frightened by this apparition, or questioning the unity of the three in speech, and the obvious priority of the one. The text says that the Lord appeared, but it does not clearly state that Abraham knew that it was God himself who was visiting him. Whether he knew his visitors to be God or merely his messengers, Abraham offers them his finest hospitality.
For many, this scene is a foreshadowing of the revelation of the Trinitarian God that will come with Christ’s Incarnation. Abraham’s three visitors are viewed as being God-Yahweh, God’s Word, and God’s Spirit: in other words, the Holy Trinity. Such a reading of this scene can only be made through the lens of the Incarnation, and Christ’s revelation of the Father and Holy Spirit, both in what he said, and what he did – the manifestation of the Trinity at Christ’s baptism, and in his Transfiguration. Similarly, Rublev could only portray this scene iconographically because of the Incarnation of Christ, who is the perfect icon of the Father.
Reading the Creeds in the icon
If this icon is a presentation of Trinitarian truths, it serves too as an exploration of further theological truths, for in Rublev’s icon we can find a summary of the teachings of the Nicene Creed.
Within the Orthodox Church, the Nicene Creed is sometimes divided into 12 sections for catechesis. And each of those 12 sections of the Creed is heklpful as we pray with Rublev's icon and enter into the mysrery of the Creed:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is,
seen and unseen.
All three figures portrayed in the icon have a few things in common. Each holds a rod, a half shepherd’s crook and half sceptre, symbolising the equality among the three. Each wears a cloak of blue, the colour symbolic of divinity in iconographic language. And each face is exactly the same, perhaps another sign of the oneness in the distinction of the three.
Nevertheless, the figures are seated in their doxological order: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The first figure is at rest within itself. This figure wears a blue garment that is almost hidden by a shimmering, ethereal robe. “You robe yourself in light as in a garment” (Psalm 104: 2). This represents the Father, the One who is Creator, who cannot be seen by his human creatures. Both hands clasp the staff. All authority in heaven and on earth belongs to the Father.
The Father’s divinity (the blue tunic) is cloaked in a colour that is light and almost transparent, yet opaque as well, symbolising the ineffable, hidden nature of the Creator and Lord of all. In one hand he holds the rod, and with the other he blesses, as if to show that he is pleased with the Son’s acceptance of his mission. His gaze is turned toward the other two, but his head is not inclined – rather, Son and Spirit incline their heads toward him, acknowledging the one who is their origin and source.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
The central figure is Christ, the Word and Son of God, whos is at the centre of all creation, and through whom all things are made. Theis second figure also wears the blue of divinity. Both Father and Spirit wear blue, but is the other colour in which the second figure is robed earth brown or royal purple? Reddish purple is a symbol of royal priesthood. Christ is royalty – the King – and he is Priest, the one who condescends to his creation and becomes part of it. Christ is the High Priest, the one in whose place stands every earthly priest who celebrates the Liturgy.
If then it is purple, it is deep purple-red. This is the purple of royalty, rather than the lavender or so-called “royal purple” we think of today. Purple fabric was very expensive. Lydia in the Acts of the Apostles may have been a very rich woman as a trader in purple goods (Acts 16: 14). In ancient times, the only source of purple dye was a tiny gland at the back of the head of the murex snail. Only the wealthiest could afford it, and so purple was associated exclusively with royalty. Over his purple tunic the Son wears a blue mantle, indicating divinity.
On the other hand, if the second figure is robed in brown rather than purple, the colour of the garment speaks of the earth and of his humanity. The gold stripe speaks of kingship, for this is the Christ. But it is worn like a deacon’s stole, for this is the Servant King.
With his two fingers, formed to spell the Greek letters Chi-Rho, an abbreviation of the word Christ, the Son blesses the cup at the centre of the table. The cup he blesses, as one of the visitors, is the calf Abraham ordered to be slaughtered and prepared. In the symbolic language of the icon, however, the cup contains the sacrificial Lamb, a foreshadowing of His sacrifice on the cross. His blessing shows his acceptance of this sacrifice, as does the inclination of his head and its gaze toward the figure to his left – the Father.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man (truly human).
What do we mean by saying he "was incarnate by the Holy Spirit"? The Spirit lays his hand on the table as if to signify that he will be with the Son throughout his mission. It is for us and our salvation that he came down from heaven. Indeed, it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that the Incarnation takes place. The Father blesses the Son for his acceptance of this saving work that will invite his creation – all of humankind – to participate in the communion of the Trinity. Their love is not self-enclosed, but reaches beyond the Trinity, and this is the model for the love of all human persons.
The Christ figure rests two fingers on the table – laying onto it his divine and his human nature. He points to a cup filled with wine. He is the incarnate Lord, and he is present to us today as we share in the common cup of the Eucharist.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
Behind the second figure is a tree. This could be the oak tree at Mamre under which the three angelic visitors rested. The hospitality of Abraham and Sarah was rewarded in the gift of a son. This is an important lesson in the value of hospitality.
But the tree also represents the Cross on which Christ died. This is the tree of death which becomes the tree of eternal life – it was lost to humanity by the disobedience of Adam and Eve, but was restored to us by the obedience of Jesus. The Cross is the place where death and life confront each other, where death gives way to resurrection and eternal life.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
The niche in the front of the altar represents the empty tomb of Christ.
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
The Son and Spirit incline their heads toward the Father, who is the Source. Yet they do not dissolve into each other, or into him. Each is a subject – a hypostasis – and yet they are one. The icon shows the divine taxis of the Father as arche or source; the Spirit as the one who prepares the way for the Son’s mission and, at the same time, is intimately tied to him; and the Son, deferring in everything to the will of the Father, accepting the sacrifice he must make, and accomplishing all through the Holy Spirit. And so the Ascended Christ, the Son, is now seated at the right hand of the Father.
The second figure is the Risen Christ, in all his ascended glory, who is now seated to the right of the Father – from from our perspective, from where we stand to view the icon and to enter into the mystery of the Trinity. In most representations of the Trinity in Orthodox theology, icon writers often relied on the symbolism of a triangle. In Rublev’s theology of the Trinity, the Father is the first point of the triangle, the arche, the source – both the Son and the Spirit originate in or proceed from him.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
strong>and his kingdom will have no end.
The tree behind the second figure, the Christ figure, is also the tree of life in Revelation, which bears 12 kinds of fruit, one for each month of the year, and the leaves of this tree are for the healing of the nations. This is the Christ who will return again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and to usher in his Kingdom, which will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]
who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
The figure seated to the right of the icon represents the Holy Spirit. He wears a cloak of green over the blue of his divinity, symbolising life and regeneration. The action of the Holy Spirit transfigures and transforms, and it is through him that we are invited to experience new life, especially through the Holy Mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation (Confirmation), Eucharist, and Marriage.
The Spirit’s head is inclined toward the middle figure and draws our eyes there as well. As he does in the life of Christ in the New Testament, the Spirit is pointing us toward the Word, revealing to the beholder of the icon who he is.
The Christ figure in turn inclines towards the figure on the left – and we are drawn to gaze there too. A blue robe speaks of divinity, while a green robe represents new life – the new Life in the Spirit.
The green mantle of the Spirit, scintillating with light, is another of Rublev’s achievements. Green belongs to the Spirit because the Spirit is the source of life. On the Feast of Pentecost, Orthodox churches are decorated with greenery, boughs and branches, and many people will come to church dressed in green or wearing some green clothing.
To refer just briefly to the controversy over the Western insertion of the filioque clause into the Creed, it is worth noting that the Spirit inclines towards the central figure, drawing our gaze to the Christ figure. And the Son and the Spirit both bow their heads to the Father.
But all three show equality in other ways. Each carries a slim red staff, an emblem of authority. The Son and the Holy Spirit both gaze towards the Father, inclining their heads. There is an expression of deference, which is reflected in the version of the Nicene Creed that Rublev would have recited daily: the Son is begotten of the Father, the Spirit proceeds from the Father.
The Orthodox prayer to the Holy Spirit begins: “O Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of blessings and Giver of Life …” In the Creed, the Holy Spirit is the Lord, the Giver of Life. This sense of the Spirit as the source of life, everywhere present, filling all things, contributes to one of the distinctive insights and approaches of Orthodox theology, which is intimately bound up with daily life. There is no such thing as theology which is purely intellectual. If theology fails to change me, if it fails to flood me with light, then it is ineffective.
The Spirit touches the table – earthing the divine life of God. It is the Holy Spirit who has spoken through the prophets. Notice the mountain behind the third figure. Mountains are places where people often encountered God, places where heaven and earth seem to touch. Moses met God on mountains. Elijah, as he sought refuge in the crag on the mountain, could not find God in the earthquake, the wind, or the fire, but in the gentle breeze that carried the voice of God deep into his being. Jesus was transfigured while in prayer on a mountain.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
Rublev’s icon is the icon of the Church, more than any other icon. “The Church is the body of Christ, the fullness of the Holy Spirit, and the abode of the Holy Trinity. It is not primarily a sociological phenomenon, but a gift of God the Holy Trinity. That is why we speak in the Church about the mystery of the graced human person living in time the eternal mystery of the Trinity.” – [The Church of the Triune God: The Cyprus Agreed Statement of the International Commission for Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue, 2006, I/22, p. 18.]
The three figures sit around a stone table that early Christians would have recognised as an altar. The niche in the front represents a tomb – not only the empty tomb of Christ, but also the Christian custom from the time of the catacombs of placing the bones of departed believers beneath their altars.
All three figures make a similar gesture towards the chalice with their right hands – note that the Father and the Son are holding their fingers in the form of a blessing. On the table is a gold chalice containing red wine mixed with bread. This is how the Eastern Orthodox prepare the Eucharist, by combining leavened bread and wine in the same chalice and receiving from a spoon.
The Son, the central figure, accepts the cup of sacrifice. In the celebration of the Holy Mysteries or sacraments in the Orthodox Church, the Eucharistic bread (prosphora) is leavened, symbolising the risen Lord who is alive, just as the yeast in the leavening is “alive.” Bread and wine – Body and Blood – are distributed together from a chalice with a golden spoon, and a small amount of warm water is added to the chalice, symbolising the warmth of the “living Blood” of Christ being received. As he pours the water into the chalice, the priest says, “The warmth of the Holy Spirit.”
It is worth paying attention to the way in which Rublev has handled perspective in his icon. The top of the table, and the tops of the pedestals the Father and Spirit rest their feet upon, tilt dramatically towards us, as if we are looking down on the scene from above.
At the level of the figures’ faces, however, we seem to be looking at the three directly from about shoulder height. The perspective has been intentionally distorted it in order to give us a sensation that the scene is bursting out toward us, with the chalice in the centre pressing itself our way.In conventional works of art, we expect things to get smaller as they go into the distance, like your childhood drawings of railway tracks that converge in the far distance. Icons often play with reversing or distorting perspective, in order to increase the viewer’s sense of being off-balance and in an unfamiliar, powerful world, or even to feel that the whole scene is rushing towards me, converging on me and challenging me to get the bigger picture.
The viewer is the vanishing point; if God did not sustain us, we would vanish. The beholder is drawn into the circle that embraces the Trinity by the gesture of the Spirit towards the small rectangle at the base of the table. This is where we are included in the divine circle. This rectangular space speaks about the narrow road leading to the house of God.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
Every human person is made in God’s image, and as such is made in the image of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each person who is baptised actually enters into the life of the Trinity in a unique way, and takes his or her first steps on the path toward divinisation – a path only to be realised in its fullness in the eschaton.
“At your baptism in the Jordan, O Lord, worship of the Trinity was revealed, for the Father’s voice bore witness to you, calling you his ‘Beloved Son,’ and the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of these words. O Christ God, who appeared and enlightened the world, glory be to you!” – Troparion for the Feast of Theophany
The icon of the Trinity is a theophany, and the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan is a theophany, when the Father presents Christ as his beloved Son, and this revelation is made known through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
Behind the first figure is a house – the dwelling place of God. “In my Father’s house are many mansions – I go to prepare a place for you ...” The house represents the church, the communion of saints, and the promise of the resurrection of the dead.
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Each figure has a halo, which should not be understood as a flat disk behind the head, but as a globe of light encircling the head, like the sphere around a candle flame. In each figure, we have a vision of the future, the coming of the kingdom and the life of the world to come.
There is a timeless yet eternal way in which each figure is written by Rublev. All three look alike. The Son is not depicted in the familiar likeness of Jesus. This visitation to Abraham took place many centuries before the Incarnation. And so Rublev drew on the indication in Genesis that the three resembled angels. They are depicted in the way angels usually appear in iconography: as young men with long, curly hair pulled back, no beards, and delicate gold wings. It is a moment in the past, a moment in the present and a moment in the future, when we shall all be restored to being in the image and likeness of God our Creator.
God creates all people, men and women. He creates out of love, for a specific purpose, making our destiny eternal life with him. This destiny is called divinisation, and it means that we are created to experience life within the Trinitarian communion of persons.
What exactly this divinisation consists in we do not know, for it is a mystery known only by God. Our participation in the life of the Trinity will not make us sharers in this mystery in the same way each of the Persons in the Godhead shares in it. But God has, in a very real way, entered into the mystery of our humanity, so that we may enter into the mystery that is his communio personarum. Saint Athanasius said: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” By this he did not mean that we will become divine ourselves, but that through his incarnation in Jesus Christ, God has invited us into his life.
“The deification…of the creature will be realised in its fullness only in the age to come, after the resurrection of the dead,” Vladimir Lossky has written. [Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Press, 2002), p. 196.] “This deifying union has, nevertheless, to be fulfilled ever more and more even in this present life, through the transformation of our corruptible and depraved nature and by its adaptation to eternal life. If God has given us in the Church all the objective conditions, all the means that we need for the attainment of this end, we, on our side, must produce the necessary subjective conditions: for it is in this synergy, in this co-operation of man with God, that the union is fulfilled. This subjective aspect of our union with God constitutes the way of union which is the Christian life.”
Our understanding of the Creed is often limited and restricted by our perceptions of the Creed as a dogmatic and doctrinal statement on the part of the Church. But in the liturgy we use the Creed as a Canticle, in a similar way to the way in which we sing the Gloria. The Creed is a Canticle as well as a doctrinal statement. It sets out how we praise God and enter into the mystery of the Trinity.
Rublev’s icon of the Trinity invites us to enter into a mystical understanding of the Trinity, the Nicene Creed and the central, Credal truths of Christianity.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This paper draws on notes prepared for lectures on the Creeds during the NSM course at the Church of Ireland Theological College in 2007. The text of the Nicene Creed drawn on here is that found in the Book of Common Prayer (2004) of the Church of Ireland.
© Patrick Comerford, 2007.