I want to thank you all for having me here again. For those of you who recall last year, we had the opportunity to talk about the Icon of the Nativity, something particularly relevant during the Christmas seasons. For tonight, though, I wanted to show you something a bit more general, but that is, nevertheless, a real treasure of the Orthodox Church – Rublev’s Icon of the Holy Trinity.
Rublev was a monk and iconographer
Before we actually get to this beautiful icon, though, I want to, as it were, prepare your minds for its significance. First off, I want to give you some idea about how certain colors are used in iconography. Look at this 14th century icon of John the Baptist.
Notice the gold background.
As you know, gold is one of the most precious metals, and that is part
of the reason for its use as the background of icons. The idea is to convey a sense of the worth,
of the high value, not of the art itself, but of the figure depicted
therein. In the same way, the scriptures
describe, among other examples, the New Jerusalem (the
“The brilliance of gold in mosaics and icons made it possible to feel the radiant light of God and the splendor of the celestial kingdom where there is never any night. Gold symbolized the divine nature of God himself.”
-From the Orthodox World website http://www.orthodoxworld.ru/english/icona/11/index.htm
Secondly, notice the Baptist’s outer garment. Green is the color of nature, of living things. By extension, it is also the color of the Holy Spirit, who sustains and supports all of creation.
“Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of truth, present in all places and filling all things, the treasury of blessings and giver of life, come and abide in us…”
-Prayer from the Orthodox Church
This next icon, of the blessing Christ, is probably quite familiar. I want to point out that Christ is wearing an inner garment of purple that signifies the divinity and royalty of Christ, along with an outer garment of blue, signifying the humanity which Christ took on.
Finally, I want to show you an old icon of the Hospitality of Abraham.
The story is from Genesis chapter 18:
1 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. 2
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.
3 He said, "If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. 4 Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5 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."
6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. "Quick," he said, "get three seahs (a unit of measure) of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread."
7 Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. 8 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.
9 "Where is your wife Sarah?" they asked him.
"There, in the tent," he said.
10 Then the LORD 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. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, "After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?"
13 Then the LORD said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh and say, 'Will I really have a child, now that I am old?' 14 Is anything too hard for the LORD ? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son."
15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, "I did not laugh."
But he said, "Yes, you did laugh."
Notice how the text says that Abraham is visited by the Lord, then three men show up. This identifies the three men with the presence of the Lord. As you read scripture, and as you gaze at icons in general, keep in mind that this art is soaked in biblical imagery, which forms the basis for the pictures depicted.
In this icon, you also see how Abraham is quick to show hospitality. This characteristic is one of the ones that makes Abraham such a revered figure in the scripture! See how he and his wife are serving the men. Now, notice the lamb’s head in the center of the table. It signifies a sacrifice. It is this icon that forms the basis of Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity.
When we first gaze upon this icon, we are stuck by the
vibrant yellow-gold color. Just as in so
many other icons, gold indicates the value of the image and draws us into the
As our eyes adjust to this scene, we move to the central image – three angels seated at a table, just as in the Icon of the Hospitality of Abraham. That patriarch and his wife have been removed from the scene. It is not that they are unimportant, it is just that Rublev took only the most salient elements of that scene. In fact, this movement from the Genesis scene to that of the Trinity echoes an Orthodox perspective on the Bible: the scripture is not about us, or even the individuals in the stories. The scripture is about God!
Each angel bears a staff in the left hand. Staves indicate power, and in this case a level of equality between the three figures. At the same time, there is a balance. Note how the two figures on the right tilt their heads slightly towards the angel on the left. Look at the color of the garment of the angel on the right: green. Look at the two colors of the garments of the central angel: purple and blue. The one angel signifies the Holy Spirit, and the other Christ. This icon shows that these two, though equal in nature to the Father, nevertheless show their obedience to Him.
Next, look in the center of the table. The lamb sacrifice has been changed into a Eucharistic one. Here, we have another movement from the Old Testament precursor of sacrifices to the ultimate sacrifice of Christ reflected in the Eucharist. In this way, we come to understand the table as an altar. The angels gather around this altar just as we do at the Liturgy on Sunday. It is the place where God is present, and the place we go to meet him.
Furthermore, notice how the Christ-like angel performs a blessing on this sacrifice, as does the angel on the left. It is as if to indicate their approval of this sacrifice. In fact, the Orthodox church has always maintained that Jesus laid down his life willingly. In other words, he was not killed because he was forced to be killed, but through a free act of his will.
Finally, look at the angel on the right hand side – the Holy Spirit-like one. This angel is not blessing, but is pointing, gesturing towards both the Eucharistic sacrifice and the funny emblem in the front of the table. The job of the Holy Spirit has always been to point to Christ (just as John the Baptist does). But, what does this emblem signify? In Orthodox churches with consecrated altars, this is where the relics of saints are located. Just as in the Revelation chapter 6, martyrs and saints are understood as being located under the altar of God. So, the last element of this icon is the inclusion of those sanctified by God. It is both an assurance that we can enter into the divine presence, and an invitation to do so. Thus, the ultimate beauty of this icon is that in art, it draws us into the presence of the divine, and at the same time contains the message about doing that in our lives.
I want to thank you all for coming, and again wish you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.
God be with you all,
Home :: Top of Page