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This 15th-century Russian icon is a window into the Holy Trinity

Peter Kwasniewski Peter Kwasniewski Follow Dr. Peter
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June 11, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — As we approach the great feast of the Most Holy Trinity, which falls on the Sunday after Pentecost, we may fittingly meditate on this most fundamental of all of the mysteries of the Christian faith with the aid of Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev’s Trinity icon, completed sometime between 1411 and 1427, at the same time Fra Angelico was painting his first masterpieces in the vicinity of Florence.

This image, like the mystery to which it points, is inexhaustible in its riches: every detail carries layer after layer of meaning. In this article I shall follow, even word for word at times, the analysis of Paul Evdokimov (The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty, 243–57), as well as insights from Fr. Gabriel Bunge (The Rublev Trinity). My purpose is to walk through the main features of this icon so its message may become for us a companion in our prayer to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

First of all, what is it that we are seeing? Is this a depiction of the Trinity itself? No. The mystery of the invisible Godhead cannot be depicted by man; only the incarnate Christ can be depicted as He appeared in flesh, and the Spirit can be rendered under the form of a dove and flames, but the Father has never been sent into the world in a visible mission, and the Trinity in itself cannot be portrayed except in metaphors that gesture towards it.

What we see, instead, is a created likeness of the Trinity — namely, the theophany narrated in Genesis 18, the so-called “hospitality of Abraham.” In the biblical story, three mysterious pilgrims visit Abraham, who, by the oak of Mamre, welcomes them into his tent, sacrifices a calf to prepare a meal for them, and sets the food before them on a table. An Eastern liturgical text says of this story: “Blessed Abraham, you saw them, and you received the divinity, one and three.” In the iconographic tradition there were many earlier depictions of this scene that gave Abraham and Sarah significant roles, but Rublev omits them altogether. Their very absence in this portrayal invites us to penetrate deeper into the icon and to pass over to the second level.

The “Eternal Council of the Three” have before them the economy of salvation, God’s plan unfolded in history. The landscape changes its meaning: Abraham’s tent becomes the temple-palace; the oak of Mamre becomes the Tree of Life; the cosmos is represented by a schematized cup placed on an altar; in this cup is the head of a calf offered as food, the Eucharistic sacrifice for the life of the world. That the altar and cup represent the cosmos is emphasized by the four corners of the altar and the small rectangle placed on it, which call to mind the four compass points.

Since it is transcendent and inaccessible, God’s inner life as Trinity is only hinted at. All the same, Rublev finds ways to point towards it, following the time-honored truth that the economy of salvation derives from and, in a way, mirrors the processions of the Persons within the Godhead.

The three persons are shown in conversation, possibly about the verse in John’s Gospel: “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son.” God is love in Himself, in His triune essence, and His love for the world is the reflection of His trinitarian love, the continuation or extension of it to the furthest reaches of being. God’s gift of Himself never arises from or results in a lack or loss; it is rather the overflowing of the superabundance of His love. This gift of Himself is represented by the cup, which we may envision as a well that never runs dry.

The angels are grouped around the divine food. Even if this food is a calf’s head, in keeping with the story in Genesis, we are immediately reminded of the Lamb, about which the book of Revelation says: the Lamb has been slain from before the foundations of the world. Love, even the sacrifice and immolation that flow from love, preceded the creation of the world and are its source.

The three angels are at rest: the supreme peace of being in oneself yet being entirely for another or towards another. See how the image of the Son (in the center) and the image of the Holy Spirit (on the right) bow their heads gently and graciously towards their common origin, the Father (on the left), who, for His part, gazes steadfastly towards them.

Yet this rest is also motion. The movement starts with the outstretched foot of the angel on the right and continues through his inclined head. It passes through the middle angel and irresistibly pulls the cosmos with it: the rock and the tree. The movement terminates in the vertical position of the angel on the left, where it enters into a resting position as in a container. Even so, the circular movement continues with the feet of the left figure, which stretch out towards the right figure, thus completing the circle and showing that this motion is continuous: it always arises afresh, and the circle is not broken.

Alongside this circular movement, whose completion orders the whole work, as eternity gives order to time, we have the vertical movement of the temple and of the scepters. These designate the aspiration of the created for the uncreated, the earthly for the heavenly, where all upward movement finds its completion. Perhaps we could say that we see in these two movements agape or self-giving love and eros or yearning love, the former pouring out from abundance already possessed, the latter arising from a need to be filled.

Rublev’s way of painting the angels shows us their unity and equality: one angel could be substituted for another. In this way he confesses the coequality and essential identity of the divine Persons. The difference between them comes from the personal attitude of each one towards the others, yet there is no repetition or confusion. (The glowing gold on icons designates the divine nature, its superabundance. Unfortunately, the gilding on this icon from the year 1425 has worn away, but you can see where it would have appeared in the halos.)

The angels’ extended wings envelop and cover everything. The interior outline of all the wings, a tender blue, puts the accent on the unity and the heavenly character of the divine nature. One single God and three perfectly equal Persons: this is what the identical scepters and thrones express; they are signs of the same royal power with which each angel is endowed. They are also clothed in the same types of garments, but they are colored differently, to bring out the distinction of persons. The one color they have in common is, again, an intense blue.

The angel who represents the Father, on the left, wears a robe that is pale purple and tending towards invisibility; He is totally invisible for us, the radiance of his personhood almost completely veiled (notice how hidden is His blue chiton). The house rising immediately behind him points to the Father, for “in my Father’s house are many rooms” (Jn. 14:2).

Over his body, the angel who represents the Son wears a dark purple chiton, decorated with two gold stripes (only one is visible, representing the two natures — one visible, the other invisible), while for overgarment he has a chlamys of deep azure blue. The Incarnate One is depicted as king and prophet: kingship signified by the purple robe; prophecy, or the revelation of God, by the azure mantle, because in the Son the “glory” of God has been revealed to us, and the disciples have “seen” it and “testify to it” (Jn. 1:14, 1 Jn. 1:2). The tree emerging behind the Son symbolizes the Tree of Life, the Wood of the Cross, since, as St. John teaches, the Passion is the “hour” when the Son manifests the glory of God.

The angel who represents the Spirit wears his chlamys so that it leaves an arm free — the left arm. Notice that the angel representing the Son wears his chlamys so that it leaves his right arm free. This is meant as a reference to the teaching of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who says that the Son and the Spirit are the “two hands” of the Father, through which He works everything. The chlamys of the Spirit angel is pale green, which is the liturgical color used in the Byzantine Pentecost season and in the post-Pentecost season of the Western Church, because it is the color of new life, fresh life in the Spirit, who is the “Lord and Giver of Life.” (The ground on which all the figures find themselves is also pale green.) Behind this angel a rock rises up, a symbol of the earth, whose “face is renewed” by the Spirit (Ps. 103:30). The age of the icon makes it hard to discern, but there is evidence that Rublev painted the rock as split, a reference to the rock split by Moses’ staff, causing living water to flow out for the thirsty people (Ex. 17:6). Christ interpreted the streams of living water as the Holy Spirit (Jn. 7:38). However, as the Son and the Spirit are inseparable, so their symbols are mutual: the green tree above the Son is also a sign of the life given by the Spirit, and the rock above the Spirit is also a sign of Christ, the “spiritual rock” (1 Cor. 10:4).

Several other features in this masterpiece are worthy of notice. The angels’ bodies are fourteen times the size of their heads, compared to the normal seven times in human beings. This elongation adds to their ethereal, otherworldly character. The angels’ wings and the schematic way of treating the countryside give an immediate impression of immateriality and weightlessness. The angels rest their feet on slabs, which remind us of the empty tomb in the Resurrection icon. There are no shadows. No element reflects natural light but rather each emits its own light, a light that wells up from secret roots. We are peering here, as through a mirror, into the very source of light, “with whom there is no change, nor shadow of alteration” (James 1:17).

As do all Byzantine icons, this one employs inverse perspective — things farther away are larger or, at least, do not diminish — in order to abolish the distance and depth in which everything disappears at the horizon. This is a horizon marked by fullness of being, not diminution of being, as the horizon appears to an egocentric perspective. The figures are close up and almost rising off the panel, to show that God is here and everywhere. The perspective also necessarily invites the viewer, who is the “vanishing point,” into the picture. There is a projected and implied “fourth chair” waiting for you to be seated and to take your place at the table of the Three.

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Peter Kwasniewski

Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the choir and schola. He is now a full-time author, speaker, editor, publisher, and composer.

Dr. Kwasniewski has published seven books, including Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014); Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014); Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017); A Reader in Catholic Social Teaching (Cluny, 2017); and Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis has been published in Czech, Polish, German, and Portuguese, and will soon appear in Spanish and Belarusian.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over 750 articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church. 

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, please visit his personal website, www.peterkwasniewski.com.