At the end of this month, we celebrate the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Many of us might think of the Trinity in specific visual images: most often the Father as white-haired, Jesus with a dark beard and red robe, and a dove. Other familiar images include God’s hand, Jesus’ cross, and the fire of the Spirit.
However, there’s an image from the Eastern Orthodox churches — specifically, the Russian Orthodox Church — that is different.
Sometimes called “the Old Testament Trinity,” the icon was created in the early 15th century by a Russian monk named Andrei Rublev. It is based on an earlier icon called “the hospitality of Abraham,” about Genesis 18 and God appearing to Abraham under the oaks at Mamre: the story of the three visitors.
What Rublev did — controversial in his time — was remove Abraham (and Sarah) from the image, leaving only the visitors. Since then, his icon grew to be a cherished representation, in both East and West, of the Trinity: their equality, along with their unique roles, their love and the dynamism of their relationship.
That relationship within the Trinity is sometimes referred to as perichoresis — from Greek words meaning something similar to “rotation” and often likened to a dance. Looking at Rublev’s icon, one can see motion, almost circular in form, between the three. Their gestures toward each other, their eyes and even their wings touching, give a sense of movement back and forth.
The faces of all three look identical, like triplets: no age difference, no clear delineation of who’s who — like nail marks or white hair, and no difference in halos.
A closer look, though, does show differences and tells us that the Father is on the left; the Son is in the middle; the Holy Spirit is on the right.
How can we tell? Icons are not created randomly, but follow very specific rules. To call them “art” is loosely correct, since they involve art media, like paint. However, icons — from the Greek word eikon, meaning “image” — are more correctly prayer aids and not art. And they are not spoken of as “painted,” but as “written.” The creation of icons is a form of prayer and very specifically dictated. Looking at Ruble’s icon, we can “read the image:”
- First, all three figures wear blue in some fashion; blue is the color of the heavenly realm.
- Gold — which long ago wore off Rublev’s image, but once filled the space of the image — signifies heaven, where God dwells.
- White symbolizes light itself; it surrounds all three figures and seems to emanate from them, just as light came from the transfigured Christ.
- All three figures hold staffs, symbols of power.
From these alone, we know this is the divine Trinity and not three angels (who are represented by different colors and images in icons.)
God the Father
The figure on the left is the only one who does not bow his head, while the other two look toward him. Over the blue color of heaven, he wears a robe of an airy color that almost seems beyond color; some describe it as white, some orange, and others say it is purple. The consensus seems to be that it is meant to represent how “no one has seen the Father” and thus he cannot be represented by any one color. Behind the Father’s image stands a house, complete with tower. It reminds us of “the Father’s house” of many mansions; with the tower there so the father of the Prodigal Son could look for his son’s homecoming.
God the Son
Jesus is in the center. His colors are the most solid of the three, to remind us that he became human and came to earth. Over his blue robe is another of brown-red to image his heavenly nature clothed in humanity. On his shoulder a gold band reminds us of Isaiah’s words: “upon his shoulder dominion rests” (9:5).
His two fingers, held in Eastern Christianity’s position of blessing, touch the table and point to the gold chalice. In the chalice rests the sacrifice, representing both the bull Abraham prepared and the Eucharistic Lamb. The Son looks toward the Father, but turns toward the third figure. Behind the Son is a tree. This could represent the oaks of Mamre, but, as a prayer aid, symbolizes the tree of the cross.
God the Spirit
The third figure is the Spirit. His blue robe is covered with a green garment, symbolizing creation and new life. The Spirit also touches the table, but with his whole hand, a gesture to show his creative work in the world. Behind him is a mountain, since it is on mountains where we encounter God, as did Moses, Elijah and Jesus himself.
As movement become apparent between the three, we can follow the order of the creed we pray on Sunday:
“I believe in one God, the Father almighty (on the left) … I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ (in the middle) … I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life ….”
As one prays, you can begin to sense this movement and the dynamism between the three. Follow their expressions and the way they look upon each other, and a clockwise movement becomes apparent.
Then, some writers explain, there is also counter-clockwise movement: from the right side of the icon to the left. Climb the mountain behind the Spirit, travel to the cross behind the Son and, from the cross, reach the Father’s house. Moving across the table, the flow continues around.
The movement seen in Rublev’s icon reminds us of the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange” (n. 221).
Likewise, we are invited to that exchange, into that dance of the Trinity. It is a mystery, but a mystery that draws us toward heaven.
Sources: Baltimore’s Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox parish at holy-transfiguration.org; “Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity” at wellsprings.org.uk; “Andrei Rublev’s Trinity Icon” at academia.edu; L’Osservatore Romano; “A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons” at iconreader.wordpress.com; New World Encyclopedia; and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.