Reflections on Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity

 

 

Icon of the Most Holy Trinity, by Andrei Rublev

[These are reflections I made to our 7th & 8th grade Religious Education Classes]

A Reading from the Book of Genesis: (Gen. 18:1-8)

The LORD appeared to Abraham by the terebinth of Mamre, as he sat in the entrance of his tent, while the day was growing hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them; and bowing to the ground, he said: “Sir, if I may ask you this favor, please do not go on past your servant. Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet, and then rest yourselves under the tree. Now that you have come this close to your servant, let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves; and afterward you may go on your way.” “Very well,” they replied, “do as you have said.” Abraham hastened into the tent and told Sarah, “Quick, three seahs of fine flour! Knead it and make rolls.” He ran to the herd, picked out a tender, choice steer, and gave it to a servant, who quickly prepared it. Then he got some curds and milk, as well as the steer that had been prepared, and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree while they ate.

 

  1. Tonight we are going to learn something about the Most Holy Trinity. To begin with, the Trinity is the most central Mystery of our Faith. Being a Mystery, even if we were to discuss it for a million evenings, we would never be able to say all that there is to know about the Trinity; so tonight we are just scratching the surface.

  2. In discussing the Trinity, I am going to give you each a gift, that we are going to look at for our reflection. It has a copy of a famous icon, “The Most Holy Trinity,” by a Russian monk named Andrei Rublev, written in 1410. Rublev’s icon of the Trinity was unlike any other icon of the Trinity up to that point because he used the passage from the Book of Genesis that I just read to you as the text to base his icon.

  3. One of the key points that Rublev picked up in that passage is that while Abraham looks up and sees three men standing nearby, when Abraham speaks to them he says, “Sir” the singular, and not “sirs” the plural. As Rublev correctly understood this indicates the most basic characteristic of the Trinity; while there are three Divine Persons, there is only one God. In the icon, this is indicated by three main things:

    1. First, while the icon is rectangular, when you look at it, there seems to be a circle around the three central figures. This unseen, but present circle, indicates the Divine Love that is the very essence of God and that binds the Three distinct Persons. The Father is the Lover, the Son is the Beloved, and the Holy Spirit is the Fruit of the Love.

    2. Second, all three figures have the same face; again, indicating their one Divine Nature as Three distinct persons.

    3. Lastly, they all are where blue garment, the color of the Heavens in iconography. Yet each wears something that also speaks of their own identity.

  4. Now let’s look at each figure to see what we can learn about each of the Divine Persons in the Trinity. Let’s first look at the figure all the way to the right. We can see the blue garment, again representing His divinity, and we see Him also wearing green. While most of us, being from the Western or Roman tradition of the Catholic Church, think of red being the color of the Holy Spirit, in the Eastern tradition of the Church, which Rublev belonged to, the color of the Holy Spirit is green. Now, why do you thing that green would be a color of the Holy Spirit? Have you ever looked closely at a tree during the Springtime and noticed the green of the new leaves? Green is used to represent the new life that the Holy Spirit gives us. This is why in the Creed we refer to the Holy Spirit as the Giver of Life.

    1. Notice that the Holy Spirit touches the table. This indicates the “earthing” of the the Divine life. Think about the following words that are used at Mass, as the priest calls forth the Holy Spirit onto the bread and wine that will become the Body and Blood of Christ, “Lord, You are holy indeed, the fountain of all holiness.
Let Your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy….”

    2. Behind the figure of the Holy Spirit is a mountain. Mountains are common places where people have encounters with God. Just remember Moses encountering God in the burning bush on the mountain. Mountains are symbolic of places where heaven and earth come together.

    3. Lastly, the figure is inclined, that is bending forward, gazing towards the figure in the center, who we will turn to next.

  5. The figure in the middle is of course wearing a blue garment, indicating His divinity, and He is also wearing a brown garment, representing the earth, and in this case His humanity. This is the figure of Jesus Christ in the icon. Notice that on His brown robe there is a gold stripe. This is a sign of His Kingship.

    1. The figure of Christ Jesus has His hand on the table and is pointing with two fingers. This points out for us that by Jesus’ two natures, being both fully Human and fully Divine, Jesus reveals the Trinity to us.

    2. The figure of Jesus points to a cup of wine. What do you think that this represents? The cup of His blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant between God and human beings.

    3. Behind this figure of Christ is a tree. This tree helps us call to mind several things from Scripture.

      1. First, it can be literally the Tree of Mamre, where the three angelic figures who encountered Abraham rested. This represents the importance of hospitality. Because of his and Sarah’s hospitality, Abraham is rewarded with a son. For the people of Abraham’s time, children were important not only for their own sake, but because they were seen as a way of living eternal life.

      2. The Tree also is there to remind us of the wood of the Cross. The Cross, the tree of death, becomes the tree of eternal life -
lost to humanity by the disobedience of Adam and Eve -
restored to us by the obedience of Jesus.

      3. The tree in the icon also calls to mind the Tree of Life described in the Book of Revelations (22:2) which bears fruit each month, and whose leaves are used for medicine.

    4. The figure of Christ is inclined to draw our gaze to the figure on the left.

  6. The figure on the left of course represents the Father. Notice, that while He is also wearing a blue garment, most of it is hidden by His rose colored garment. This represents the fact that God the Father, the Creator of all, cannot be seen by human beings. Rather, as Jesus tells us, it is the Son who reveals the Father. Why is He where a Rose colored garment? When do the priests wear rose colored vestments at Mass? When we are more than half way finished with Advent and Lent, the two penitential seasons of the Church year. Rose is the color of the sky at dawn, just before the sun rises.

    1. The Father has both hands grasping His staff. This is a sign of His authority in heaven and on earth.

    2. Behind the figure of the Father is a house, the dwelling place of God. “In my Father’s House are many mansions – 
I go to prepare a place for you…” What is the promise for you in these words of Jesus?

  7. Another important feature of Rublev’s icon, is that he has the three heavenly figures seated at table, with a cup on the table. Clearly this is a sign of Them seated at a meal, but not just the meal that Abraham had fixed for them. It is the meal of the Eucharist. In fact, if you follow the line of the legs of the two figures on the two ends, you will see they form the outline of a chalice. The Eucharist is the sign of the Communion, the oneness, of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

  8. There is one last aspect of the icon that I would like to point out. Notice that the green robe of the Holy Spirit draped in front of the table, and that there is a piece missing from the table. This is the place for each of us. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, who gives us New Life, we are invited to enter into communion with the Trinity.

About Fr. JC

Ordained a priest for the Diocese of Trenton, NJ, in 2004. Currently the Pastor of Resurrection Parish in Delran, NJ.
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2 Responses to Reflections on Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity

  1. Christina Holm says:

    Hello!

    I really like your lesson plan but I have a few questions for you.

    Where did you get your information on the icon? Are you describing what the artist has said about the Icon and if not who said it?

    Also I did not quite get your last statement when you said a piece of the table missing I do not see where you are talking about.

    Thank You!! Christina

  2. Christina Holm says:

    I am also curious where I can get holy cards with this icon on them.

    Thanks, Christina

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