29 January 2016

Andrei Rublev: the icon writer who
became a saint and theologian

Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity … he is commemorated on 29 January in Church Calendars

Patrick Comerford

One of the most-visited quiet corners of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, is the side chapel in the south-east corner where there is a large copy of Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity.

Andrei Rublev (Андре́й Рублёв), who is regarded as the greatest mediaeval Russian author of Orthodox icons and frescos, is commemorated today [29 January] in many Church calendars.

Tradition says Rublev was born in the 1360s, but we have little information about his life, and we do not know when or where he was born.

He probably lived in the Trinity Lavra of Saint Sergius near Moscow under Nikon of Radonezh, who became the hegumen or abbot after the death of Saint Sergius of Radonezh in 1392.

Rublev is first referred to in 1405 when he decorated icons and frescos for the Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin in Moscow, working alongside Theophanes the Greek and Prokhor of Gorodets.

Theophanes the Greek was an important Byzantine master who moved to Russia, and is considered to have trained Rublev. Rublev’s name is the last on the list of the masters because he was the junior among them, both by rank and by age.

Rublev and Daniil Cherni painted the Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir in 1408 as well as the Trinity Cathedral in the Trinity Lavra of Saint Sergius between 1425 and 1427.

After Daniil’s death, Rublev came to the Andronikov Monastery in Moscow where he painted his last work, the frescoes of the Saviour Cathedral. He is also believed to have painted at least one of the miniatures in the Khitrovo Gospels.

Rublev died at the Andronikov Monastery in Moscow on this day, 29 January, in 1427or 1430, although some sources give the date of his death as 17 October 1428.

A modern icon of Andrei Rublev

Rublev’s work has influenced many artists and theologians. However, the only work authenticated as entirely his is the icon of the Visitation of Abraham or the Old Testament Trinity. This dates from ca 1410, and is now in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

This icon is based on an earlier icon known as the “Hospitality of Abraham,” based on the story in Genesis 18. Rublev removed the figures of Abraham and Sarah from the scene, and through a subtle use of composition and symbolism changed the subject to focus on the Mystery of the Trinity.

Rublev combines two traditions in his work: the highest asceticism and the classic harmony of Byzantine mannerism. His paintings are always characterised by peacefulness and calm. His work is often regarded as the ideal of Eastern Church painting and of Orthodox iconography.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Andrei Rublev, made 50 years ago in 1966, is loosely based on his life. This is probably the only film produced in the Soviet era to treat the artist as a major figure in Christian history and as an axiom of Russia’s historical identity.

The Russian Orthodox Church canonised Rublev as a saint in 1988, and celebrated his feast day on this day, 29 January. The liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (TEC) also commemorates Rublev today.

The copy of Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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