Rublev's Holy Trinity Icon
About Andrei Rublev’s Holy Trinity Icon
The word ‘icon’ comes from the Greek word for image, but a true icon is much more than a beautiful and educational piece of art. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
"Icons are more than decorative art or educational illustrations. Icons are "theology in color." An icon is a place to receive grace through faith, a sacramental: Its purpose is to transport us into a transfigured world, to plant that transfigured world within us, to bring us face-to-face with a living presence and change us." (CCC 1667-1679).
For more detail on what exactly an icon is, click here.
For more detail on what exactly an icon is, click here.
Next to the Veil of Veronica, or the Sudarium, the cloth to which Jesus pressed his face on the journey to Calvary and which is considered to be the first icon, Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity is perhaps the most famous of all icons. The icon, created in the first part of the 15th century, depicts three figures, and so it is mistakenly assumed that the three figures are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are angelic figures which represent or reflect the mystery of the Holy Trinity to us. However the significance of the image is much deeper and richer than being a mere picture. As with all iconography, symbolism is a factor in the Holy Trinity Icon, which is also called the Hospitality of Abraham Icon. Each aspect of the icon – the colors, symbols, positioning – has certain significance. They are no artist’s whims.
The subject of the icon is based on the story of Abraham, who is camping by the Oak of Mamre when he receives three visitors. As he converses with the three angels and serves them a meal, it is revealed he is actually talking directly to God.
And the LORD appeared to [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, "My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I fetch a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on - since you have come to your servant." So they said, "Do as you have said." (Gen 18:1-5)
To begin with, in Rublev’s icon there are three figures sitting around a table. On one level the three are literally the visual manifestation of three ‘angels’ the Lord appeared as. On another they are a visual expression of the mystery of the Holy Trinity. For this reason, the icon is also sometimes called an icon of the Old Testament Trinity.
The Colors of the Icon
Reading the icon from left to right, we see identical angelic figures but clothed in different colors of garments. One wears a blue garment, and on top of that a cloak of an indescribable, almost ethereal, color. It seems to hold every possible color in the world. This is fitting because the Father cannot be seen but at the same time is apparent in every aspect of His creation. The second angel wears two colors. The blue garment is representative of Christ's divinity; the dark, ruddy brown is the color of the earth, representing His human nature. The two colors worn together signify Christ’s dual nature, and the unity of humanity and divinity in Him. Across the figure's right shoulder, the gold colored band – a symbol of government – signifies Christ's kingship. The third angel is clothed in both blue and green. The blue once again is representative of the divine nature; the green is the color of new life. The Holy Spirit moves through all of God’s creation, through Heaven and earth, water and sky.
Positions and Other Symbols
The three angels sit in a circle – representative of the unity of the Holy Trinity, the three are in fact one. The circle is not closed off, but remains open – an invitation to us. The angels representing the Father and Holy Spirit are both inclined toward the Son; the body of the angel representing the Son is inclined toward the angel representing the Holy Spirit and his face is toward the representation of the Father. The gaze is circular, leading the one looking at the icon to continually move from one figure to the next. The symbolism, the truth portrayed, is that the Father leads us to the Son, who leads us to the Holy Spirit; in turn the Holy Spirit leads us back to Christ and Christ leads us back to the Father.
There is a tree in the icon as well. The tree on the literal level is the one under which the visitors to Abraham sat. However in the icon, it is placed directly behind the Christ angelic figure – symbolic of the Cross of the crucifixion, the tree of death becoming the tree of eternal life. The Son angelic figure points toward a chalice in the center of the table, representative of the Holy Eucharist. The Father angelic figure sits before a house. Once again, it may be the literal home of Abraham, father of the people of Israel. Yet it is placed in the icon behind the figure of our heavenly Father, and so it is also figurative of the dwelling place of God. The Father angelic figure has two hands on His staff, a symbol of the authority of the Father. The Spirit angelic figure sits in front of a mountain, places where Heaven and earth almost seem to touch. Moses encountered God on a mountain and much later the Transfiguration of Jesus took place on a mountain.
To read more about this and other famous icons, pick up Light From the East, an inspirational introduction to the spiritual riches of the Byzantine liturgical tradition of iconography. To view our entire selection of beautiful icon reproductions, all presented in an authentic Eastern style, please click here.