We’ve developed a tradition here at The Well where each summer we offer something a little different to our audience — something to support the work of rest, restoration, and preparation that we hope is part of the season’s different rhythms.
This year we are offering our Summer 2021 Visio Divina Series. You can read more about this practice in our introduction to the series. Today, we'll take a close look at a piece by artist Andrei Rublev.
Andrei Rublev, "Icon of the Holy Trinity," (c. 1410; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) Tempera on wood. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Week 4: Icon of the Holy Trinity
Questions for visio divina
- As you begin, take a few deep breaths. While we know God is always with us, invite the Holy Spirit to be present and to speak to you afresh in these moments. Spend some time looking at the image. What do you see? Similar to doing Bible study, make as many observations as you can. What do you like or dislike? Why? What questions do you have?
- How does the artist use color, light, style, composition, and material? What do you think the artist wanted to communicate? What stands out to you? Why do you think this is so?
- Read Genesis 18:1-15. How does this add to what you are seeing? Is there other Scripture that comes to mind?
- Spend some time reflecting on the Scripture passage and looking again at today’s image. What is God’s invitation to you? What might you need to see, understand, or believe? How does your current life experience intersect with what you are seeing and reflecting on? How might this image help you pray today? What do you want to say to God? Ask from him?
The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.
He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”
“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”
So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”
Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.
“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.
“There, in the tent,” he said.
Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”
Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”
Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”
Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”
But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
This piece of art is unique among those we are using in this series. It is an icon created by Andrei Rublev, a Russian monk, as a tribute to his mentor Abbot Sergius. The use of icons in worship is common in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and “The Icon of the Holy Trinity” is one of the most well known. The purpose of an icon is to communicate spiritual truth moving the viewer to contemplation about and worship of God. Artists told and retold the truth about God through creation of sacred images inspired by the Scripture, often painting over work done previously on the same piece of wood, adding their own interpretation. For this reason, they were known as icon writers, not artists. By Rublev’s time, there was a long tradition in the Church of interpreting the story of Genesis 18 as a revelation of the Trinity, but Rublev’s reflection on the story is unique as we will consider momentarily. (An interesting discussion about all the layers on this Rublev piece plus its cleaning can be found here.)
The main activity in this icon is the quiet interaction of three robed figures gathered around a table. What do you notice about them — their faces, their clothing, their posture, their gestures? How are they arranged? What other elements are present in the scene? What do you notice about where they are placed? As is often the case with religious art, there is a lot of symbolism in this piece (the objects, their location in the painting and relationship with one another, as well as the colors). Given the story in Genesis 18 and what you know about the overall story of God, what do you make of this piece? What aspects of God and his character do you see reflected in the three figures? How do the other elements present add to the scene?
Rublev’s presentation of the Trinity is fascinating, isn’t it? The three figures have things in common — their faces, blue garments, wings, halos, rods — yet there is something unique or distinct about each. All of this serves to teach us what we mean when we say the God we know and worship is fundamentally trinitarian — one God, yet three persons.
- Though there is some disagreement in the literature, most believe the figure on the left represents God the Father. His undergarment is blue, representing the heavens or divinity. Notice all three of the angels are robed in blue. The outer garment of the Father is translucent, suggesting that God is Spirit and entirely “other.” Above him is a house-like structure referring to Abraham’s “tent” or possibly to the “house of God” (Psalm 23:6) with many rooms (John 14:2).
- The center figure is that of the Son of God. In addition to the divine blue, he wears a reddish-purple garment. Some believe it represents royalty (purple) and others suggest it represents the earth, or his humanity. The gold stripe on his right shoulder is symbolic of his kingship (Is. 9:6). His right hand gestures toward the chalice suggesting his acceptance of the “cup of God’s wrath” he will drink. Interestingly, his right hand holds out two fingers. Many have said this refers to his two natures — human and divine. Above him is a tree. Most likely it is the Mamre tree spoken of in Genesis 18, but perhaps it also points forward to the “tree” on which the Son will give his life for the redemption of the world.
- The third figure on the right is most likely that of the Spirit. He, too, is dressed in blue indicating his divinity. His outer cloak is green, symbolizing life and regeneration. In Orthodox churches, the color of Pentecost (the celebration of the descending and indwelling of the Spirit for all believers) is green. His hand extends toward the cup indicating blessing and his presence with the Son in his life and work. Behind the Spirit is a mountain reminding us of the times God gave the law, revealed himself to Moses and others, and even the transfiguration of Christ.
The arrangement of the figures as well as their gestures function to teach us about the relationship of love and mutuality within the Godhead.Their placement around the table and the positions of their bodies create a circle, symbolic of the unity of the Trinity. Do you notice the tree and the mountain also bend toward the Father? The Father sends the Son. The Son does the will of the Father. The Spirit gives witness to the Son. All centered around the cup of the eucharist, each is involved in the redemption of humankind.
Stylistically, it is quite typical of medieval painting — elements are flat and stacked which has the effect of pulling the viewer into the scene rather than viewing it at a distance. The result for us as we look at the action in the center is that we feel included, perhaps even invited to join them, at the table. In Rublev’s interpretation of the story Genesis 18, commonly known and communicated as “The Hospitality of Abraham,” he has removed Abraham and Sarah and rendered it in such a way that it becomes an invitation to us to know and enjoy the hospitality of God. Art history scholar Frederick Hartt writes, “Rublev goes to the heart of the mystery, showing us only three angels as if we were Abraham and Sarah…” The focal point of the entire icon is centered on a chalice containing the head of a calf (or perhaps a lamb) reminding us that this generous welcome into the life of God does not come lightly or without cost.
Keenly aware of my own faults and failures, I am always profoundly moved when I consider the loving and lavish hospitality of the triune God. Perhaps this has influenced my sense of vocation which I describe as creating welcoming spaces for people to meet with God and with one another. Usually that means brewing a pot of coffee and baking some cookies, so it’s been challenging during these pandemic days to figure out what that looks like. Grateful for technology, it’s been a gift to host four prayer gatherings each week where women faculty, grad students, and professionals come together to enjoy and interact with God and each other.
Father, Son, and Spirit - who has for all eternity existed in a perfect community of love and fellowship within yourself, we stand amazed that you would welcome us into life with you and go to such great lengths to make it possible. Father, by your Spirit, grow the character of Jesus in us. Grant eyes to see the places where we need to offer loving and costly hospitality to others this day whether they be in our family, classroom, lab, office, or community. Amen.
For further study and reflection
I recommend this resource which includes the description beneath the icon in the Tretvakov Gallery in Moscow as well as links to a number of other discussions about the icon, its symbols, and their meaning.
Where is God drawing your vision today? Take a photo and share your thoughts using our hashtag — #visiowell — on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.