Depictions of the three visitors to Abraham in Christian art go back to at least the fourth century (a fresco in the Catacombs probably being the earliest example). Through the centuries several motifs were developed. Some Icons portray all three as beardless men standing before Abraham, others as winged angels sitting around a table being served by Abraham and Sarah (cf. Heb 13.2). Trinitarian echoes can be seen in these earlier works. Usually all three angels are identical, indistinguishable save for the inscription IC XC over the middle angel, thus indentifying him as Jesus. What strikes me about Rublev’s Icon is his subtlety, his skill in teaching far more than earlier versions of this scene, with far less content. Rublev adds no subscriptions to tell us who is who, but reveals the three Divine Persons to us simply through colour, posture and background.
There are only three Persons in Rublev’s Icon. Abraham and Sarah have been removed, the focus is the three. The three can be enclosed in an unseen circle (which I have added for the sake of clarity); likewise an equilateral triangle joins the three together. The geometrical dimensions create the impression of unity; theologically they declare the undivided Ousia or substance of the Triune God. Three in One. The careful equality of the persons in their essence is guarded by ensuring each person is the same size and seated. One in Three.
Rublev does not portray each of the angelic visitors with the same clothes, as some earlier Icons of this scene do. He ensures the threeness is not sacrificed to the Oneness. The distinct colours identify three distinct persons or hypostases. We will explore each person in detail in a later post. For now we note that this representation of the Trinity emphasises above everything the idea of communion, or relationship. Each person is in subtle communion with the other. The Trinity is relational in its very essence. There is no hint of broken or damaged fellowship here. The Trinitarian Persons perfectly and eternally love and commune with each other.
What amazes us, the more we understnad what Rublev is protraying, is that at the heart of the Trinity is the question of you and me. God preparing the means and way for men and women, who bear a smeared and deformed Image of God within us, to enter into that sublime fellowship of the Trinity. More on that later.