Icon of the Blessed Trinity
Andrei Rublev, 15th Century
It is often said that religious icons are not painted, but writ-ten. The term ‘iconography’ could be literally translated as im-age-writing or written image. This word-pairing explicitly makes the connection between the word of God and image of divine realities. Icons truly are window into divine realities; they allow us to be suspended between the earthly and the heavenly realms. Icons are meant to be read so as to contemplate the spiritual realities they impart about an image.
Genesis 18:1ff, The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oak of Mamre, as he sat in the entrance of his tent, while the day was growing hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them; and bowing to the ground, he said: “Sir, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet, and then rest under the tree. Now that you have come 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.”
In this encounter between God and Abra-ham, there is constant shifting of reference to God in relation to number (one and three) and identity (sir, men, even as an-gels in Gen 19:1). This technique is employed to recognize the Mystery that is God. It is this biblical account that inspired Andrei Rublev to write the icon of the Blessed Trinity.
Looking at the icon, at first glance, one sees three charac-ters, winged, like angels. The bowing of their heads, the slight forward shoulders and the uneven placement of their feet cre-ates a circular image that conveys the oneness of God made by the three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit (reading the icon from left to right). All three hold narrow staffs with their right hands, probably a sign of just authority but also of the God who journeys with men and women. All three wear halos of light to signify divine glory, a proper attribute of God.
God the Father (left) is clothed with fabric that shimmers, like light, even transparent—human words fail to describe and to confine. His eyes are directed to the Son: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him.” (Matt 17:5) His right hand points and imparts blessing to the Son.
God the Son (center) is clothed with deep colors: crimson and brown of the earth and the blue of the heavens. These colors bring heaven and earth together as Jesus is true God and true man. A band of gold rests on his right shoulder: “Authority rests upon his shoulders” (Isa 9:6). His gaze is towards the Father: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). And the fingers of his right hand points to the Holy Spirit.
God the Holy Spirit (right) is clothed with blue and green—reminiscent of the creator Spirit who hovered the heavens above the waters and brought new life into being (Gen 1:2). His gaze is directed to the Father. His head as well as the Son’s are slightly bowed, in adoration, towards the Fa-ther, from whom the Son is generated, and with the Son, from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds. Even the mountain behind the Holy Spirit (the biblical place of encounter with God: it is the Spirit that enables us to encounter God through the moun-tain of prayer), and the tree on the left of the Son (the tree that caused the downfall of Adam becomes the Tree of Life, the Cross) bow before the Father. The mountain and the tree points us to the house of the Father as God the Son and God the Holy Spirit leads us to God the Father.
Their heads, their postures, their eyes and their hands invite us to continually move from Person to Person to Person. For within the Trinity is movement. The movement is love that is constant and complete giving of oneself to the other. And we are called to participate in this movement of love through the Eucharistic sacrifice, the Mass. Their table, the Altar is our Altar too. Look at the fingers of Holy Spirit, they point us to the table, the Altar. Oh, we are not spectators—we are participants!
On the Altar is the chalice and in it the flesh and the blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus. Reflect—even the silhouette creat-ed by the space between the Father and the Holy Spirit forms that of a chalice. Within this silhouette of a chalice is Jesus Christ, the Paschal Lamb, whose blood is shed for the for-giveness of sins (cf. Matt 26:28).
Andrei Rublev, using the Scriptures as starting point, leads us to contemplate on the realities of God, that God Himself reveals to us. God is the God of glory which the heavens and the earth reflect. God is the God of majesty whom heavens and earth adore. God is the God of love who is self-giving and who is freely and fully given to us.
May our contemplation of this beautifully written icon more and more reveal to us the nature of God and, therefore, our nature too, not only as individuals but more importantly as a community that is loved and is called to love.
Glory be to the Father,
and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be,
world without end. Amen.
Iconography in Christianity
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1160:
Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words. Image and word illuminate each other:
We declare that we preserve intact all the written and unwritten traditions of the Church which have been entrusted to us. One of these tradi-tions consists in the production of representational artwork, which accords with the history of the preaching of the Gospel. For it confirms that the incarnation of the Word of God was real and not imaginary, and to our benefit as well, for realities that illustrate each other undoubtedly reflect each other’s meaning. (Second Council of Nicaea, 787 AD)