Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Contemplating Rublev's Icon: The Authority of the Trinity and the Community of Women and Men in the Church

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Contemplating Rublev's Icon: The Authority of the Trinity and the Community of Women and Men in the Church

Article excerpt

I have been asked to speak to you about the icon of the Trinity by Rublev. You might ask why, and how, one can speak of an icon in the context of the theme of our conference: "Authority and the place of women and men in the church". How can we conceive of the principle of authority and community through an image?

For the Orthodox, icons are a part of spiritual tradition. In church and at home, the faithful pray before the icons that represent the principal liturgical feasts (Easter, Christmas, Pentecost) as well as Christ, the Virgin and all the saints. As the titles of various books on icons tell us, they are "theology in colour" (E. Trubetskoy), "a theology of beauty" (Evdokimov), "windows onto eternity" (M. Quenot) "pictures of the Invisible" (E. Sendler). It is also said of icons that they are liturgical images, and even the "abode and leaven of unity" (M. Quenot).

One of the most popular, and most often-reproduced, icons today in the Orthodox world is that called "of the Trinity", based on the model painted by Andrei Rublev in Russia around 1422-25, now to be found in the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow. We must begin by saying that it does not purport to be a true representation of the Holy Trinity, an icon of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, because Orthodox theology teaches that the Son alone, who took human flesh, can be represented. As a great contemporary iconographer, the monk Grigoriy Krug, has written, "The Trinity cannot be represented, but one has to look at this icon (of Rublev's) as the deepest symbolic representation." (1) It depicts three angels, referring to the Old Testament text in Genesis 18 when the Eternal One visited Abraham mysteriously, under the form of three angels. This inspired Abraham's philoxenia--a Greek word meaning "love for the stranger", "hospitality". This image indicates for us a symbolic representation of a trinitarian model and, by extension, the Holy Trinity. This icon of the Trinity in the form of three angels was to become traditional from the time of the Council of Moscow in 1551 that commended it as a perfect example of iconographic art. According to Egon Sendler, with this representation by Rublev, "dogmatic elements began to dominate and determine the whole composition [of the Trinity]". (2) Rublev painted the three angels with a circular motion to signify their unity and equality, "thus creating a unity to represent the Holy Trinity in its movement of love, as the source of man's salvation". (3) This perfect circle is the sign of divine eternity, one God in three perfectly equal persons, as is signified by the three identical sceptres held by the angels. Their gaze and their being interact with no separation, confusion or subordination. They are similar, but they differ in gesture and colour.

For the Orthodox, it is this relationship of perfect love that is the model for the ideal relationship of all God's creatures one with another, and within the church between the different ministries of men and women. According to Paul Evdokimov: "In this icon, Rublev recreated the very rhythm of Trinitarian life. He also was able to show its united diversity and the movement of love that identifies the Persons without confusing them." (4) It is on this icon as the symbol of love and Trinitarian relationship that we shall base our consideration.

One brief word about the symbolism of the colours, about which, according to Michel Quenot, the icon specialist, we must speak of the "mystery and not give an exotic interpretation". Red is fire, warmth, divine love. Blue is the colour of mystery, of divine life. Gold is light, divine abundance. When we see Christ clothed in blue and red, these two colours symbolize his divinity and his humanity. On this icon, the colours are without shadow, and contrast with the whiteness of the tablecloth on ,which the chalice and the eucharistic lamb, the divine nourishment of the Church, the Body of Christ, are laid. The colours and the forms create a perfect accord. …

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