This icon, by Andrei Rublev, is a familiar one to many. It’s often used on Trinity Sunday to explain the relationship between God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
And it’s about the relationship between God and ourselves too. I’m reminded of Abraham Heschel saying that Scripture is “God in search of man”.
It’s also used as a reminder to be hospitable, being, as it is, a picture from the scene in Genesis of Abraham and Sarah entertaining the 3 strangers, unaware, at first, as to who they really were. Indeed at one stage in our own church we had it printed as postcards, with enough for ourselves and any visitors.
I’m struck by something else though. Something which I hadn’t appreciated about the icon until recently. It regards the very nature and condition of the icon itself and what it says both to us and about us. But we’ll come back to that later…
A brief background
There are many fantastic websites which go into much greater detail and it’s well worth searching on Rublev’s Icon and seeing what you can find. There are also some references at the end of this post.
Rublev was born in Russia around 1360, became a monk and died in 1430. You can see his work in the Russian Museum in St Petersburg and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow as well as at the Andronikov Monastery. This particular icon takes as its subject the story given to us in Genesis 18 where Abraham and Sarah are camping near the oak of Mamre and 3 visitors turn up. They invite them in, roast a lamb and make an overly generous amount of bread.
Rublev was not the first to depict this scene but he was unusual in choosing not to portray Abraham and Sarah, focussing instead on the guests.
Looking through a Christian lens, the 3 visitors represent the Trinity. They each have halos of white and staffs of authority. Or perhaps they are walking staffs? We are each on a journey and the three persons join us in that, they are with us in our weariness.
The figures are each similar in size and apparently similar in age. No old man with a white beard! The Holy Spirit is on the right hand side, wearing clothing of blue and green, signifying divinity and new life. The Son has a heavy garment of reddish brown and a cloak of blue, meaning earth and heaven united. The band of gold on his right shoulder refers to ‘the government shall be upon his shoulder’ from Isaiah 9.
The Father is on the left in clothes that seem more transparent and difficult to define. His head is more upright than the other two, who seem to incline towards him. His fingers seem to point to the Son or to the chalice in a motion of blessing. In turn the Son seems to bless the Holy Spirit.
A place for us
Then there is a space for us to make up the circle. A place is left for us, ready to be blessed in turn by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit sits beneath the hill of prayer, which may be rocky and steep. But it leads to Jesus and the tree. The tree may be a symbol of the crucifixion or of the shade and shelter given by the oak of Mamre. A place of security and peace. The tree is on the way to the house which is over the head of the Father. It’s door is always open for the traveler, the window open for the Father to look out for the return of the prodigal. It’s the goal of our journey. The beginning and end. Our dwelling place with the Father.
The table or altar is at the centre with the sacrificed lamb in the chalice. It’s Abraham’s hospitality to his visitors and God’s place of hospitality to us. And we’re invited in, to complete the movement of God by our own response. To come into the intimacy and depth of what we see here. Some even suggest that the small rectangle that you see on the side of the table once held a tiny mirror…
Icon and Renewal
In orthodox Christianity an icon is not a painting in the normal sense. They are ‘written’ rather than painted, as they tell a story. An icon is a window out of everyday life and into the realm of God. Every stroke of the brush has a meaning. The colours and shapes have a significance. They make the invisible visible, conveying inner spiritual meaning. The icon is a visual equivalent of the Scriptures, which we’re invited to participate in, to become part of the narrative.
The icon’s creation is an act of worship and the painter, or author, prepares through prayer and fasting. The perspective is reversed, as if the vanishing point is behind us. As if the picture was the reality and we were the image being looked at…
What I hadn’t appreciated was that in Rublev’s time, new icons were coated with a protective layer of oil to guard against damage and intensify the colours. But within a few decades the oil darkens, obscuring the original painting and ultimately turning black. The icon was usually painted over, a process called ‘renewal’, following roughly the same lines but reflecting the aesthetics of the time.
Because of its age, the Trinity icon was renewed four or five times over the centuries. Then in 1905 they decided to take it back to the original painting. But the attempt was widely condemned as being disastrous. In some places they didn’t take all the layers off. In others the repairs were thought to be clumsy and heavy handed. Another attempt was made in 1919 and what we see now is partly the original icon. But partly we see the work of others as they have restored the damage and replaced with new paint where needed.
The restorers were completely stunned when they got back to the original paintwork. Other icons painted at the time of the Trinity used dark, earthy tones but here was bright colour and transparency. Rublev had produced work which seemed more Italian than Russian, though in truth his training was Byzantine.
The base board on which the icon is painted was cracked and so in 1931 they tried to close it by putting it in a high humidity atmosphere. The gap closed but it’s not known what long term affect this treatment will have on the paint applied at different times over the years.
And what about us?
Yet despite its flaws and failings the Rublev Trinity icon is still seen as the one of the best examples of iconography. And this is what particularly spoke to me. We also may be chipped and damaged. The odd repair may have been attempted, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Many hands over many years may have made us how we are today. But there are still glimpses of the original, with all the amazing colourful vibrancy that was first intended. All those things combine together to create our story, to make us what we are now.
And in many ways we too are icons. We are also pointers to God, we help make the invisible visible. In the way that we live our lives and the relationships that we build we invite people into the realm of God, into His narrative. We can help change the perspective. And our current, less than perfect condition, doesn’t detract from that. Some bits may need cleaning up every now and then but God uses us, as fragile and damaged as we are.
You may find these references useful: