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Rublev’s Trinity: The Icon

.This week’s article on the Trinity icon is co-written by Kyleshka and the Badger Dad.

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Who’s Rublev?

Andrei Rublev, (pronounced “Rooblyohff), a monk from Holy Trinity Monastery, is the iconographer behind the most popular icon of the Holy Trinity. We do not know many of the details of his life. But here is what we do know; he was born in the mid to late 14th century. Traditionally, we believe Theophanes the Greek mentored Rublev in the art of iconography. In 1408, he participated in the writing of icons at the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow, where he was recorded as the most junior of the iconographers who participated. After this, Rublev went on to work on iconography in at least one other church. He died around 1429.

Since it is the icon and not the iconographer which is honoured, we are only aware of the Trinity icon as Rublev’s work. And this icon is essentially the icon of The Hospitality of Abraham, but with Sarah and Abraham removed and other symbols altered to reflect the Trinity. So let’s get into that symbolism!

A Note about Abraham’s Hospitality and the Trinity

In Genesis 18:1-15 we read about the hospitality of Abraham to three angels. This event foreshadows the Theophany in the river Jordan. Furthermore, we read this event as an Old Testament revelation of the Trinity because sometimes when Abraham refers to the angels he uses a singular tense. Yet other times he uses plural pronouns for the three angels.

The Trinity Icon

The primary feature of the icon is the characters and positioning of the three angels, which Rublev rightly interprets as being a Theophany, or showing forth of God, through the “Type” (prefiguration) of the angelic figures.  Typically read from left to right we see each angelic figure bearing the same facial and body characteristics, but with differing postures and clothing.  The Unity and Communion of the Godhead is expressed by their similarities and in the complementary of the symmetry of the figures.  The circular formation around the table (a Type of the Altar of Sacrifice and the Altar of the Cross), expresses this symmetry. And the angelic figures accentuate this.

The heads of the angels are tilted in deference to and in a communication of love between the three. This is a beautiful expression of the life of the Trinity, and reveals how there is no position of domination over each other within the Godhead. This also expresses how their hypostatic union is without confusion, separation or co-mingling. Each figure carries a staff or scepter in their left-hand, showing forth their Sovereignty and Power.

Trinity Image of the FatherTrinity icon

The left most figure is the image of God the Father, who sits at the head of the table.  His head tilts to the right, towards the other two figures.  The features of God the Father contain less detailed than that of the central figure of the Son. This is because the Father is a Mystery revealed to us by His Son.  The colours of his clothes and face are paler and more translucent to indicate the same. Behind the figure of God the Father sits Abraham’s house. In the icon, Abraham’s house represents where God the Father first chose to meet with His people. That is, in the Tent of Meeting and then the Temple in Jerusalem, which are Types of the future Church.

Trinity Image of the Son

Moving to the middle we come to the angelic figure representing God the Son. Who is Incarnate in our Lord Jesus Christ.  He wears the same colours and sash following the iconographic traditions for depicting Christ.  Of the three angels, we see this figure with the most clear detail and the brightest colours. This indicates that we come to know the Mystery of God the Holy Trinity only through Jesus Christ. Christ’s face tilts towards the Father, to whom His eyes meet. However, He is also the foremost in facing us, the viewer. This represents Christ’s incarnated Ministry to bring mankind into the Communion of the Holy Trinity.  And our participation occurs through partaking in the Sacramental Life of the Church. And most particularly by Holy Communion.

The Offerings and Sacrafice

The image of the fatted calf in the icon expounds this symbolism. The fatted calf represents the offering Abraham gave to the angels. Also, it represents the calf offered by the father of the Prodigal Son. Finally, it symbolizes the Mystical Supper of Holy Communion.  Byzantine Catholics believe that Holy Communion is partaking of the Real Presence of the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the angelic figure Himself is also shown in an invisible chalice. This chalic formed the spacing and angles positioned by the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Both of these chalice representations are central to the icon, which is an invitation for the viewer to partake of the Holy Mysteries. Which we as Christians all received at our Baptism, and fulfill through a life of Theosis, given by grace.

Behind Christ is the image of a tree.  This directly corresponds to the oaks of Mamre under which Abraham entertained his three guests.  It also represents the Type of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. And it represents the Tree of the Cross, upon which Christ fulfilled His mission and redeemed mankind.

Trinity Image of the Holy Spirit

On the right most side we see the angelic figure representing the Holy Spirit.  He wears a green outer cloak, the liturgical colour representing Life. And, the colour connected to the Feast of the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  His details and colours are not as bright or visible as that of the Son, but still more so than the Father. This is symbolic of His more visible work to us since Pentecost. The head of the figure tilts towards the Father and the Son. However, He gazes towards the empty space at the table (that is our space as the viewer). This represents of the mission of Evangelization begun at Pentecost.

Behind the figure of the Holy Spirit is the representation of a mountain.  This is also represents the types of Mount Sinai and Tabor, where other Theophanies occurred. On Mount Sinai God met with Moses, communicating the Law. On Mount Tabor, God revealed the Glory of His Son and His future Resurrection.

The Byzantine Life

Thank you for checking out this week’s article. You might also be interested in our article on Guardian Angels. Or our article on the Icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help

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