Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity … this icon of the Hospitality of Abraham (Genesis 18: 1-16) is an aid to understanding God as Trinity
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On Monday morning, [the Revd Dr] Maurice [Elliott, Director of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute,] was talking in chapel about “Knowing God” … and more particularly about knowing God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The novelist and Anglican spiritual writer, Dorothy Sayers wrote an essay, ‘The Dogma is the Drama’ (Dorothy L. Sayers, Creed or Chaos, London: Methuen, 1947), on the relevance of Christian doctrine to real life. In it she drew up a kind of questionnaire with the sort of answers she felt ordinary people would give to questions like this. She wrote:
Question: What does the Church think of God the Father?
Answer: He is omnipotent and holy. He created the world and imposed on man conditions impossible of fulfilment. He is very angry if these are not carried out. He sometimes interferes by means of arbitrary judgment and miracles, distributed with a good sense of favouritism. He likes to be truckled to, and is always ready to pounce on anybody who trips up over a difficulty in the Law, or is having a bit of fun. He is rather like a dictator, only larger and more arbitrary.
Question: What does the Church think of God the Son?
Answer: He is in some way to be identified with Jesus of Nazareth. It was not his fault that the world was made like this and, unlike God the Father, he is friendly to man and did his best to reconcile man and God. He has a good deal of influence with God, and if you want anything done, it’s best to apply to him.
Question: What does the Church think of God the Holy Ghost?
Answer: I don’t know exactly. He was never seen or heard of till Whit Sunday. There is a sin against him which damns you for ever, but nobody knows what it is.
Question: What is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity?
Answer: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Ghost incomprehensible” – the whole thing incomprehensible. Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult. Nothing to do with daily life and reality.
Incomprehensible, nothing to do with daily life and reality. Are these some of the difficulties you could imagine when it comes to thinking and talking about the Trinity?
So I want to introduce you to a way of thinking of God as the Trinity through a Bible study and through an icon:
Bible Study: Genesis 18: 1-16:
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My Lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.”
And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.”
Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ’Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”
But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way.
The Trinity in the Old Testament:
This is one place in the Old Testament when God is revealed in three persons simultaneously. 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 this story in Genesis 18: 1-16, 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. When Abraham bows before them, he bows before the Lord. When Sarah laughs, the Lord questions Abraham. When she denies she laughed, he says, “Oh yes, you did laugh. And then “the men” depart, and Abraham remained standing before the Lord (Genesis 18: 22).
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 here in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. 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 was the greatest mediaeval Russian writer of icons and frescoes.
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 wears a blue garment – the colour of the heavens – but each wears something that speaks of their own identity.
The 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. There is 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 in an icon because of the Incarnation of Christ, who is the perfect icon of the Father.
A contemporary interpretation of Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity
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 the language of icons. 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.
The central figure is Christ, the Word and Son of God, who is at the centre of all creation, and through whom all things are made. This 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. At one time, 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). The only source of purple dye was a tiny gland at the back of the head of the murex snail. Only the very wealthy could afford it, and so purple was associated exclusively with royalty.
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.
The Spirit lays his hand on the table as if to signify that he will be with the Son throughout his mission. The Father blesses the Son for his acceptance of his saving work that will invite his creation – all of humanity – into 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.
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..
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.
The tree behind 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.
The niche in the front of the table or altar represents the empty tomb of Christ.
The Son and Spirit incline their heads towards 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.
This is the Risen Christ, in all his ascended glory, who is now seated to the right of the Father – from our perspective, from where we stand to view the icon and to enter into the mystery of the Trinity.
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 towards 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 towards 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.
You may recall Maurice’s comparison on Monday morning of the chapel light that points to the icon of Christ, and how he compared this with the action of the Holy Spirit.
In Rublev’s icon, 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: the Son is begotten of the Father, the Spirit proceeds from the Father.
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.
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 – the Eastern Orthodox way of preparing and receiving the Eucharist, combining leavened bread and wine in the same chalice and receiving from a spoon.
You may notice the way Rublev handles 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 in order to give us the feeling that the scene is bursting out toward us, with the chalice in the centre pressing itself our way. In conventional art, we expect things to get smaller as they go into the distance, but here the viewer is the vanishing point; if God did not sustain us, we would vanish.
We are 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 are each individually and collectively 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.
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.
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.
I asked you at the Eucharist yesterday as we remembered Saint Michael and All Angels to ponder how you imagine angels. These three figures in Rublev’s icon 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 divinisation means that we are created to experience life within the Trinitarian communion of persons.
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.
“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.” [Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Press, 2002), p. 196.]
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a tutorial group Wednesday, 30 September 2009.