Andrei Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity was painted sometime in the first half of the fifteenth century. He was part of a team of iconographers who painted the inside of the Church of the Holy Trinity in the Lavra (great monastery) of St. Sergii of Radonezh, near Moscow. The Icon was positioned on the church’s Iconostasis (a richly decorated east facing screen separating the Nave from the Sanctuary). It was also a Festal Icon, which would receive special veneration on particular feast days in the Russian Orthodox calendar. In the case of the Trinity Icon, this feast was Pentecost. Eastern Orthodoxy has no proper feast day for the Trinity, in Russian Orthodoxy, the feast of Pentecost became something of an unofficial feast of the Holy Trinity.
Before we examine the beauty and symbolism of Rublev’s masterpiece I must point out that this series of blog postings is not intended as a defence for Eastern Orthodoxy’s teaching on Icons! It is merely a look at one of Russia’s most famous pieces of religious artistic expression. As an Icon, Rublev’s Trinity, employs many of the famous techniques and motifs of Russo/Byzantine Iconography. Some of which are most interesting and shed light on Orthodox theological presuppositions.
However, one might rightly ask, is it blasphemous to paint a picture of the Trinity and venerate it? At present I will only answer the first part of this question. How can we depict the Trinity? Eastern Orthodoxy, properly understood, prohibits the depiction of the eternal essence of God. Thus Rublev’s Icon is an image of a type or symbol of the Trinity. In this case, Rublev drew from Genesis 18, where Abraham hospitably received three ‘men’, one of whom is identified as the LORD. This episode was used as a picture for the Trinity. Augustine noted that Genesis 18 shows us how Abraham 'sees three and worships one' (tres vidit, et unum adoravit). Procopius of Gaza (d. 538) commented that in the three visitors to Abraham we see a figure (typos) of the Holy and Consubstantial Trinity. The same idea is expressed by Didymos the Blind (d. 389), Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444), St. Ambrose (d. 397), Maximus the Confessor (d. 662) et al. For many in the early church, Genesis 18 was a type or picture of the Holy Trinity (not the actual Trinity itself).
Thus, Rublev’s Trinity, is not a representation of how the Trinity looks or appears (since we cannot see it with human eyes, cf. 1 Tim 6.16), but rather as we shall see, it is a picture of how the Trinity acts. Not daring to depict the inner theology of the Trinity, Rublev instead dared to depict the economic Trinity, God’s Being for us.