On Rublev’s Trinity
(Ex.34:4-6, 8-9; 2Cor.13:11-13; Jn.3:16-18)
Today I’d like to explore the nature of the Holy Trinity through Rublev’s Trinity, the famous icon painted by the Russian monk Andrei Rublev in 1410. It’s kept in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. [i]
It depicts a scene from Genesis, in which three angels visit Abraham at the Oak of Mamre, to tell him about the birth of Isaac (Gen.18:1-8). They’re sitting around Abraham’s table, enjoying his hospitality.
These visitors aren’t just angels, however. They’re the three persons of the Trinity. From left to right, they are God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. They’re sitting in a balanced triangle, none more important than the other. Each holds a staff pointing towards both heaven and earth, indicating their shared authority. Their wings and haloes indicate their holiness.
Now, notice their faces: they look like matching triplets. And notice their similar garments. Blue is the colour of heaven, while gold represents their royalty.
But each person is also wearing something different. The Holy Spirit, on the right, has a green cloak. Green is the colour of new life, and in the Nicene Creed we describe the Holy Spirit as the ‘Lord, the Giver of Life’.
Jesus, in the centre, has a dark red robe. This earthy colour points to his incarnation as an ordinary man, and it represents the blood of his crucifixion.
On the left, God the Father is wearing a translucent cloak. This symbolises his eternal glory, but also the fact that we can’t see him in this life.
Abraham’s rectangular table represents our world of time and space. But it’s also a communion table, like our altar, with a chalice on it. Jesus is pointing to it with two fingers, representing his two natures – human and divine. He’s also pointing to the Holy Spirit who fills Jesus’ disciples with love.
Now look at the way they’re sitting. They’re all angled towards each other. Jesus and the Holy Spirit are both looking at the Father, while the Father looks back at them. They’re peaceful, united and totally in love.
Behind Jesus is a tree which represents the Oak of Mamre, where this story takes place. It reminds us of the Tree of Life in Revelation 22:2, which produces twelve different kinds of fruit and has leaves which are perfect for healing.
It also points to the wood of the Cross on which Jesus died for us.
Behind the Father is a house, symbolising divine hospitality. In John 14:2, Jesus says his Father’s house has many rooms which he will prepare for us when our time comes.
Now, look carefully. The inner line of the body and legs of the Father and the Spirit forms the shape of a Eucharistic cup, and Jesus is inside it.
You can also see that the outline of their bodies makes a circle, which represents the Eucharistic host, the consecrated Body of Christ we receive at Holy Communion, which is God himself (Mt.26:26-28). It also represents their holy communion, their perfect union as one Trinitarian God, united in love.
But why does God take the form of three persons? Richard Rohr says that for God to be good, God can be one. For God to be loving, God has to be two because love is a relationship. But for God to be supreme joy and happiness, God has to be three. That’s because lovers do not know full happiness until they both delight in the same thing. [ii]
Put another way, the Father is the lover, the Son is the beloved, and the Holy Spirit is the fruit of that love. And they want us to join them. Look at the Holy Spirit’s hand. He’s pointing to the space at the front, and inviting us to join their divine communion.
At the front of the table, do you see that little rectangle? There was once a mirror there, which served as an invitation to us to enter into this divine circle. Whoever saw this icon could see themselves reflected in it. [iii]
In Byzantine art, the viewer always forms part of the icon, so there are at least four figures in this picture. And we directly face Jesus, because he’s the only person of the Trinity we can really know in this life.
Indeed, whenever we come forward for the Holy Eucharist, we’re received into the divine communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In our increasingly fragmented world, where tension and conflict between people and nations are growing, it’s important to remember that we’ve all been created in God’s image.
God lives in loving communion, and right now he’s calling us to wholeness.
He’s inviting us to join his circle of perfect, selfless love. [iv]
How will you respond?
[i] I took this photo myself in 2018, when I visited the gallery in Moscow. The icon is much larger than I expected.
[ii] Richard Rohr, Yes, And … Franciscan Media, Cincinatti OH. 2013:100.
[iii] Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London. 2016:30-31.
[iv] For further insights, go to https://catholic-link.org/andrei-rublevs-icon-of-the-holy-trinity-explained/