Sunday, December 4, 2011

Iconic Icons: The Holy Trinity

The Holy Trinity, three Divine Persons sharing one Divine Essence, is the basis of Christianity (followed just slightly by Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity Incarnate). Despite Its necessity for the understanding of Christianity, for centuries It was represented in iconography. The Incarnation is the theological basis of iconography: because Christ had a human body, "when Christ is seen, then His image is potentially seen, and consequently is transferred by imprint into any material whatsoever," as St. Theodore the Studite says (3.D.2). St. John Damascene states this even more obviously: "Therefore I boldly draw an image of the invisible God, not as invisible, but as having become visible for our sakes by partaking of flesh and blood. I do not draw an image of the immortal Godhead, but I paint the image of God who became visible in the flesh" (1.4). It is only because the Second Person of the Trinity became Incarnate, taking on a human body, that He can be represent in an image: since the other two Persons of the Trinity are bodiless, They cannot be represented.

Due to this theological background, icons were not written of the Father, the Holy Spirit, or the entire Trinity. Though in more recent centuries sacred art has begun to depict the unrepresentable Persons of the Trinity and the Trinity Itself, for many centuries this was forbidden (at times by overt canons, at times just due to theology and custom): as Pope St. Gregory II wrote directly, "We do not delineate and paint the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ." Since the Trinity is such a basic doctrine, iconographers wished to find a way to portray It in images. The compromise many iconographers settled on was representing the story of Abraham's visit by three angels at the oak of Mamre (Gen 18): the three angels were seen as a symbolic representation of the Trinity.

There were many icons written of this story, and they usually included narrative details of the story, such as the figures of Abraham and Sarah or a calf being slaughtered. Sometimes the three angels were shown devoid of the narrative details, but this was due to limitations of space, and the results were met with disdain. All of this changed in the early 1400s.

Andrei Rublev (Андреи Рублёв) was a 15th-century Russian iconographer. He decided, in order to show forth the Orthdodx doctrine of the Trinity, to portray this story devoid of narrative trappings, representing only the three angels, the table with bread, and a few background details, such as a house and a tree. Unlike other iconographers, who often portrayed the middle angel, seen to represent Christ, as larger than the other two, Rublev decided to portray all three angels as equal, just as the three Persons of the Trinity are equal. Though his idea was radical, the resulting work, Trinity (Троица), became one of the most famous works of Russian art and one of the most famous icons of all time.

Rublev himself never gave an interpretation of the icon, and multiple interpretations have been made. While some see the middle angel as representing the Father, the common interpretation is that it represents Christ, just as it often does in other works based on the Genesis story. The colors of his robes and the two fingers on the table (thought to represent His human and divine natures) point towards this interpretation. (A note on colors, though: instead of the common symbolism of red as the divine color, blue appears to be the divine color in this icon: possibly it is due to the Russian tradition, which I am not very familiar with.) The green robe on the angel to the right is thought to represent the vivifying power of the Holy Spirit, leaving the left angel (whom the other two look towards) to represent the Father.

In conclusion, Rublev's work is one of the most famous icons of all time, and it is unique in being one of the first icons to tackle the depiction of the Trinity successfully. Let us contemplate this icon, and in contemplating it rise to contemplation of the Most Holy Trinity.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Second Person of the Holy Trinity, have mercy on us!

Nota Bene: I obtained information for this post from a short essay by Alexander Boguslawski, as well as the Wikipedia pages for the icon and Andrei Rublev himself. The quote from Pope St. Gregory II was found at TrueOrthodoxy.Info. The quotes from St. Theodore Studite and St. John Damascene are from their Refutation of the Iconoclasts and Apology Against Those Who Attack the Divine Images, respectively: both are from the English editions from St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

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