Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Holy Trinity


I received an icon I ordered for our dining room last week, and I thought I’d take a short break from blogging Job to talk about it. It’s a copy of the famous icon by Andrei Rublev (considered by many to be the greatest Russian iconographer) which he “wrote” around 1410. From what I understand, his work on this icon was what led him to be canonized as a Saint in the Orthodox Church.

On a literal level, it’s an illustration of the three angels that visited Abraham and Sarah at the oaks of Mamre. But who wants to be woodenly literalistic anyway? The thing that makes it so interesting is that the angels are depicted as a type of the Trinity. Each angel represents a person in the trinity, with every gesture, article of clothing, and even background object having symbolic significance.

If you’re up for a challenge, go ahead and try to guess who is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Focus first on the colors – what might blue represent? What about red, and green? Who is looking at who? How are they holding their staffs? What might the objects symbolize?

The angel on the far left is the Father. He is shrouded in a shimmering robe, indicating the eternal mystery and majesty of the Father. He holds his staff straight upright, reminding us of his authority and perfect purposes. Behind him is a house, reminding us of the promise that “in my Father’s house are many rooms.” He wears blue underneath, the color of the heavens which represents his divinity. His eyes look to the Son, the second figure.

The angel in the center is the Son. He is dressed in red, the color of blood symbolizing his humanity, wrapped in blue. His gaze is toward the Father, since the Son does only what the Father tells him to do. Behind him is an oak tree, reminding us of the wood of the cross on which Jesus died. He holds his hand over the dish of food, bringing to mind the Eucharist where we spiritually feed on Christ.

The angel on the right is the Holy Spirit. He is dressed in green, the color of growing things, symbolizing the life that the Spirit brings. He also looks to the Father, since the Spirit of truth “goes out from the Father.” Behind him is a mountain, symbolizing the faith that the Spirit brings and the Church that he empowers. The mountain points to the tree as the Spirit’s hand points to the dish of food, reminding us of how the Spirit leads us to Christ.

The angels are in communion with each other, yet none of their backs are turned to us. Their circle is not closed – there is a place at the table for us to join in their fellowship. Rather than growing smaller with distance, the table is in reverse perspective – the picture isn’t pointing off into the horizon, but pointing at the viewer. We are meant to be drawn in to the fellowship of the Trinity, through the small door under the dish. We join into the fellowship of the triune God through the sacrifice of Jesus.

It’s an amazing icon, and you can meditate on it for a long time. Most literal depictions of the Trinity really are rather bizarre, and the church (with good reasons flowing from the Mosaic law) has generally forbidden trying to depict in art the figure of the Father. Yet, though the literal meaning is the three angels, the icon is a far better portrait of the trinity than any picture I’ve seen.

Comments:
I've got the same icon (a photo of Rublev's original) as the background on my computer. There's something about praying with the visual aid of icons that seems to counteract the constant images with which we are bombarded in our society.
 

Beautiful indeed.
 

I haven't quite gone so far as to pray using icons, although I suppose at this point I don't have a lot of intellectual reasons against it. Perhaps I ought to give it a try.
 

Wonders,
Thanks for sharing this. I have been fascinated to look into icons, knowing little about it. Striking and beautiful. I can see how it not only helps one to meditate on its truth when looking at it, but also when not.
 

Where do you get icons like this?
 

Matthias,

I included the link to the site where I got it in my original post. The icons at that place are rather hit-or-miss, but there are some good ones. You can easily find a print of Rublev's original (which some like better), but it hasn't weathered time all that well and I prefer a faithful reproduction. Skete is also a good place.
 

We were discussing this icon at our Prayer Meeting today; and there is a theorly supported by Richard Rohr and others that the rectangle below the table was actually the place for a MIRROR...i.e. we are to be included in this Divine Banquet.
A wonderful idea and suppported by Russian hagiographers who have found residue which had a glue-based element. Thank you for the opportunity to add my thoughts.
 

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