painted by St. Andrew Rublev
It was on the front cover of a book where I first saw the icon of The Holy Trinity by St. Andrew (Andrej) Rublev. The book was entitled I Am Food: The Mass in Planetary Perspective. Also the author of the book was Roger Corless, professor of comparative religion and Buddhism at Duke University. It seemed to me that the content of the book was irrelevant to its cover. The book of course does not contain any explanation of the icon, The Holy Trinity. At that time, although I had no idea what the icon is about or what it is for, I was just surprised that the three winged angels which look like females were depicted as the Trinitarian God. In his book, Corless identified himself "as a Protestant, an Anglican, and now as a Catholic, and often as a visitor to Orthodox churches."1 Why did the icon of The Holy Trinity appear as the cover of his book?
A short, accurate definition of the word "icon" is: "portable wood panel paintings which have a prominent place in the life and worship of the Eastern Orthodox Churches."2 It is essential that icons, for the East, are a sacramental form of presence, and the rite of consecration makes them channels of mystical union. An icon becomes a door that unites the visible with the invisible, the earthly with the heavenly. Drawing upon the icon of The Holy Trinity, painted in 1425 by St. Andrew Rublev, in this paper, I will trace how the scene of the heavenly table of the Trinitarian God joins us in a sacramental manner. A visual theology of The Holy Trinity has great implication for Eastern spirituality and our contemporary theological systems as well. In this paper, three features of the icon of The Holy Trinity will be considered: Theological analysis, visual analysis and socio-cultural conditions for understanding the communication of the icon.
When I saw the picture of the icon, The Holy Trinity on Corless's book, I asked myself, "what is it? and what is it about?" I really did not know that it is about the Trinity until I found the reference of the cover on the back flap of the book. In the icon of The Holy Trinity, there is the reminiscence of the story in the Old Testament of the three pilgrims who visited Abraham (Genesis 18:1-10). The liturgy's commentary provides the key to this event: "Blessed Abraham, you saw them, and received the Godhead, both one and three." The three heavenly pilgrims form the "eternal Council" and the landscape has a "transsignification": Abraham's tent becomes the palace-temple, the oak of Mamre becomes the tree of life, and the calf on a dish makes way for the eucharistic cup.3
In his book Learning to Look: A Handbook for the Visual Arts, Joshua C. Taylor proposes that we should first distinguish between subject matter and visual form for an analysis of a work of art:
[H]ow can the visual aspect of a painting in itself have meaning?... To keep from confusing what we normally call the subject matter of a work -- the identifiable objects, incidents, or suggested outside experiences that we recognize -- with the more complete aspect, taking as it were, the part for the whole, it might be useful to adopt the term "expressive content" to describe that unique fusion of subject matter and specific visual form which characterizes the particular work of art. "Subject matter," then, would be the objects and incidents represented; "expressive content" would refer to the combined effect of subject matter and visual form.4
According to Taylor's claim, we can imagine the very different "expressive contents" in dealing with a subject matter: the Holy Trinity -- the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit -- three winged Angels. One sits on the left, the other in the center of the icon, and the third on the right. Herein, we should raise a question: Which of the three figures is the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit? There are many opinions and discussions on expressive content, but no concluding answer has yet been given. As M. V. Alpatov puts it, "as a symbolic work of art, 'The Trinity' of Rublev admits different interpretations."5 Yet we need our own answer by analyzing the visual form which characterizes the details of the icon. In that case, we can see the Persons of the Trinity, not just three symbolic angels.
Icons in general have a somber quality since the treatment of color is "'flat', 'dark' and 'primitive'"6; low in saturation and in value.7 John Baggley points out that this manner of using colors in the icon paintings has resulted in a preoccupation considered as insignificant and unreal by many people with a Western European background in art.
Exceptionally, the value of the color is relatively high in the icon of The Holy Trinity. The icon seems saturated with a golden color. The heavenly glory radiates strongly over the whole icon. Indeed, golden color symbolizes divine energy. The higher saturation of the colors of the center angel is heightened by the contrast with the whiteness of the table and with the shining glaze of the wings of the two side angels. The shiny wings move toward the head of the center angel. The contour of the center angel's wings is also moving toward the head. In the center angel's robe, the deep purple and solid blue together with the glowing gold of the wings hold our attention. The center figure seems to have a quite central meaning in this heavenly council. According to religious color symbolism, purple means "divine love"; solid blue connotes "heavenly truth"; and glowing gold expresses "overflowing divine generosity".8 If so, who is the central figure?
The hands of the three angels are making different gestures. It is crucial that we carefully look at each angel's hands. A different interpretation of the gesture of their hands results in a different identification of the Persons of the Trinity. Let us take an illustration of an interpretation. Henri J. M. Nouwen states:
The hands of the Father, Son and Spirit reveal in different ways its significance. The Son, in the center, points to it [sacrificial cup] with two fingers, thus indicating his mission to become the sacrificial lamb, human as well as divine, through the Incarnation. The Father, on the left, encourages the Son with a blessing gesture. And the Spirit, who holds the same staff of authority as the Father and the Son, signifies by pointing to the rectangular opening in the front of the altar that this divine sacrifice is a sacrifice for the salvation of the world (italics mine).9
For Nouwen, the Son's sacrificial mission is central in the icon of The Holy Trinity. If the main topic of the conversation of the Trinity is Incarnation, it is natural to Nouwen that the Son sits in the center of the heavenly council.10 In Nouwen's interpretation, we can feel the deep purple of the center figure's robe as a color of Jesus' sacrificial blood which will be shed for us.
Yet many interpreters may see the center angel as the Father. Let me quote one example here:
[T]he line running round the outside of the three angels forms a perfect circle, sign of the divine eternity. The center of this circle is in the hand of the Father, the Pantocrator.... The Son listens, and the lines of his clothes express absolute attention and self-abandon.... His right hand assumes the Father's gesture of blessing. The two fingers standing out against the whiteness of the Bible-table proclaim the way of salvation, through the union in Christ of his two natures, by which the world and mankind are introduced into the communion of the Father. The falling hand of the angel on the right indicates the object of his blessing: the world,... (italics mine).11
Evdokimoff seems to understand the Trinity of which the summit is the "source of all Godhead," the Father. Whereas Nouwen's interpretation focuses on the Trinity's divine mission, Evdokimoffs observation centers on the relationship between the Persons of the Trinity. We can see that the three angels are placed precisely within an equilateral triangle. If we see the summit of the triangle as the Son, the two sides signify encouragement, blessing, sympathy and suffering. If we see the peak of the triangle as the Father, the two sides import obedience, attention, abnegation and receptivity. In this paper, I will follow Nouwen's interpretation in order to further develop my theological analysis. My theological analysis for the icon of The Holy Trinity can be divided into two categories: Theology of Cross and Theology of Circle.
Now, let us examine the composition of the icon. The geometrical forms of the composition are the cross, rectangle, triangle, and circle. The halo of the Father, the cup, and the rectangle on the lower part of the table are all situated on the same vertical line which divides the icon in two and crosses the horizontal line connecting the two haloes of the side angels, thus forming a cross. It is meaningful that the tree of life covers the top of the imaginary cross -- i.e., the head of the Son. Interestingly, a tradition says that "the wood for the cross of Christ came from the tree of life."12 In the icon, the Son himself forms the vertical axis of the unseen cross. For Russian worshippers, the cross is not only part of the inner compositional structure, but an important symbol of the whole of its content. God is love: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son." This love is Holy and Tri-hypostatic And this love is suffering love. Praying with this icon might lead them into the mystery of God's self-revelation. At the same time, this might help them have a unique understanding of divine suffering. Christians usually think the suffering of the Cross was only an event of the man, Jesus Christ. If this is true, the suffering is just a man's martyrdom, not a universal event of salvation. The Russian mystics understand that the suffering of the Cross is an event of God as Trinity, not only an event of Jesus Christ. The Father suffers with the Son of God on the Cross. Without hesitation we can say that the Russian worshippers within the community for which the icon of The Holy Trinity was designed could be considered to be in the vanguard of a contemporary German theologian, J. Moltmann in light of the theology of the Cross. The event of the Cross is not only "a site of people's suffering," but also the event of "new creation." Thus the icon leads the people into new creation in the long run. This new creation was begun by the Trinitarian God's own suffering. Through such new creation, God liberated human from all sin, brought humans to the Kingdom of God which is full of justice, love, and peace. When the Son died on the Cross, the Father kept silent. Yet Rublev's icon speaks to the heart that prays: The Father was on the Cross with the Son and shared the suffering in the Spirit of endless love. The basic dogmatic teaching in the community of the icon is that, first, the Godhead consists of three Persons, second, that these Persons are one, and third, that God is One in divine essence and mission. For the Russian mystics, the icon becomes a bridge that links the earthly with the heavenly, the human suffering with the divine. In other words, whenever they suffer, God always stays with them and suffers together with them. In the same manner, Moltmann used the term of "crucified God" instead of crucified Jesus. The triune God of the icon is a "God of Sympathy," not a God of apathy. God suffers and sighs with human beings within the Spirit: "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words" (Roman 8:26). Thus the Russians, as Nouwen puts it, "speak about their joyful sorrow"13 in their prayer before the cross in the icon, and this prayer is full of internal bitterness and heavenly joy. For our next discussion, we need to focus on the Spirit's role in this prayer as becoming an interceding door for the deep communication with the Holy Trinity.
When I first saw Rublev's icon, I did not pay serious attention to the rectangle on the lower part of the table. Yet it might be meaningful since "it is the place to which the Spirit points and where we become included in the divine circle."14 Nouwen states: "[T]his rectangular space speaks about the narrow road leading to the house of God. It is the road of suffering."15 This rectangular is a starting point for the mystical union with the Trinity. The holy invitation of the Trinity to seers begins here. We see another bigger rectangle in the icon: The square surface of the icon. It signifies Heaven, the divine Door. Indeed, the rectangle on the table becomes a door of the Door. "I saw a door open in heaven" (Revelation 4:1).
The oneness and mutual love of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity are strongly symbolized around an unseen circle. Drawing upon the "social" doctrine of the Trinity, Kallistos of Diokleia traces historically the notion of God as mutual love. He sees a first due in the work of St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit: "Whereas St. Athanasius speaks of God's unity primarily in terms of substance or essence, assigning central significance to the word homoousios, 'consubstantial,' Basil and the other Cappadocians prefer to express God's unity in terms of the communion [koinonia] between the three hypostaseis or persons."16 St Gregory of Nyssa also underscored the notion of trinitarian koinonia. St Augustine of Hippo appeared to have different ideas from the Cappadocians' doctrine of divinity based on three persons in their mutual koinonia; he rather took the psychological explanations of the three hypostaseis within a single human being: for instance, the mind, its knowledge of itself, and its love of itself; also memory, understanding and will. Later, however, he developed his well-known analogy of the Trinity: the Father as the lover (amans), the Son as the beloved (quod amatur), and the love (amor).17 This could be another clue for the understanding of God's unity in terms of mutual love or communion of the Godhead. Richard of St Victor (d. 1173) further developed this notion of mutual love. His additional step was a movement from self-love (the Father alone) to mutual love (Father and Son), and so to shared love (Father, Son and Holy Spirit)."18 The visual theology of the icon of the Holy Trinity seems embedded in the "social" doctrine of the Trinity. As Kallistos of Diokleia points out, the psychological analogies of the Trinity in terms of a unipersonal model "are rare in Greek Trinitarian texts."19 Rublev's icon of the Holy Spirit shows us God's love clearly -- not self-love but mutual, shared love. The geometrical element of the composition, the circle in the icon, is speaking to usvisually: God is sharing, self-giving, and solidarity.
The three angels themselves, their heads and bodies inclined toward one another, form an invisible circle. Indeed, the three are empathically turned toward each other. Baggley says, "Even though the circle is less dominant as a hidden structural element in this icon, there is a strong sense of harmony, communion, and participation in the life of the Holy Trinity."20 Interestingly, Kallistos calls this circle the "round dance" of the Trinity, which is translated from the Greek notion of perichoresis.21 The sacrificial cup is at the center of the circle. The mutual, shared love of the Trinity embraces a kenotic, suffering love. Herein Rublev proposes another visual theology for the divine koinonia, the theology of the circle. What then does he want to convey to the people using the image of the circle? Perhaps he wants to invite the Russian mystics to unite themselves with the divine circle of the Trinity. More practically, like the meaning of the cross, the message of the circle might require human responsibility. In this sense, we can say that "circle and cross can never be separated."22 Why should we focus on the image of the Holy Trinity not as a triangle but as a circle? This question may have a very significant socio-political implication within the systems of the community. The Trinity, as Raimundo Panikkar puts it, becomes "the ultimate paradigm of personal relationships."23
My practical question is, "How did Rublev imagine that the triune God's nature as a circle could affect or change the Russian Orthodox communities in his period?" In order to find some understanding, I quote sociologist Peter Berger's idea on the origin of religion. In The Sacred Canopy, Peter Berger reminds us that there are three steps in the world-building process: externalizing, objectifying, and internalizing. Society develops from this world-building, and religion develops when society tries to attach meaning to the world just built. Berger concludes that "religion has played a strategic part in the human enterprise of world-building."24 Also in terms of the unique capacity of religion to "locate" human phenomena within a cosmic frame of reference, he makes a crucial evaluation of the role of religion in the process of legitimization. "[T]he humanly constructed nomoi are given a cosmic status."25 Thus, in general, polytheism and pantheism have a caste system of gods which legitimates that of the human community. More specifically, the hierarchy of order and obedience in the gods' world has become the basis of the castes of all families, societies, and the natural world as well. A similar structure also has existed in monotheism. Under the superior God, there is a king or emperor who acts on behalf of God in the world. In addition, a religious leader has existed under, above, or beside the king or emperor of a community. Under these leaders there have been kings of families (patriarchs), their wives, their children, slaves or servants, and animals, plants (natural world) in that order. Finally this forms the triangular shape of the pyramid. in Rome, for example, Christianity presented the "ideology of obedience" (the only God -- the only emperor -- the only Pope -- the only church -- the only empire) to the Roman Emperor as a response to his goodwill.
However, as we see the circle of heavenly council in Rublev's icon, in the concept of the Trinity there is no hierarchy of order and obedience. That is, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit communicate in love mutually. Therefore, a Russian community believing in a God of a circular Trinity becomes the epitome of the image of God. Here we need to take a closer look at the meaning of Imago Dei in relation to the icon of the Holy Trinity. As I mentioned earlier, we could imagine that the main issue of the divine council of the Trinity in Rublev 's icon is the creation of the world, and the unique creation of the human person: "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness" (Genesis 1:26, New Revised Standard Version). Many people have considered the plural notion, saying "us"and "our" as an implication of the Trinity. This makes the scene of the icon understandable as taking counsel together before creating humankind. More importantly, the Trinitarian meaning of Imago Dei is fully characterized in the next verse, Genesis 1:27: "So God created humankind in his [or her] image, in the image of God he [or she] created them; male and female he [or she] created them." It is dear that the Trinitarian image is not given to the male alone or to the female alone, but to the two of them together without discrimination. This image centers on relationality since it is given equally to relational beings. Kallistos says: "The image of the 'social' God has an irreducibly social expression within humanity. It is a 'relational' image, reflected in the relationship between man and woman, in the primordial social bond that is the foundation of all other forms of social life."26 In fact, any Christian community should be a "community of God's creatures" marked by common sharing, equality, and unity as follows:
A microcosm/macrocosm scheme of legitimating the social order might be helpful to understand theologically and sociologically the relationship between God's reality and the world's reality in light of the theology of the circle. For Russians' worshipping before the icon, God exists as a "perfect" communion, community, or koinonia in the Holy Trinity and participates in their community in the world as its ground and raison d'être. I think that Rublev was asking his Russian mystics for their responsibility in the divine image of the circle. At the same time, Rublev was appealing to the mystics, saying that God as a perfectly relational being would empower them with the responsibility for their communities' just relations.
The theology of the circle in Rublev 's icon reminds me of one of the most exciting developments on the contemporary theological scene: The revision of the concept of God in new theological approaches: feminist, black, and third world. These theologies do have some essential characteristics in common; they insist on the centrality of personal experience and human interrelationships for the formulation of any valid theology. As a feminist liberation theologian Dorothee Sölle puts it, "The most important criterion.. . is intersubjectivity, in other words the communicability of experience."27 Another feminist theologian Marjorie H. Suchocki states: "The liberating God described by feminists is internally and externally relational. Internally, God is already in some sense communal; externally, God relates to the world in and through community."28 I think that this is what the theology of the circle implies for our age, as well as for the fifteenth century in Russia. In light of the theology of the circle, "only a fully Trinitarian understanding of God is", as David Tracy says, "an adequate Christian theological understanding."29
In closing, I raise one more question: "Why did Rublev depict the angels like the female figures?" Concerning the gender of the angels, the text of Abraham's story in Genesis is obvious: "He [Abraham] looked up and saw three men standing near him." Also the notion of angels (malakim) in the text indicates masculine in gender. In fact, the Hebrew word malak (angel; originally means messenger of God) does not have a female from. Indeed, I do not know why the female angels were depicted as part of the Holy Trinity. We can just make some rough assumptions. In Semitic languages the word for Spirit (ruach) is feminine in gender. Syriac texts often translate it by a feminine form, i.e., "Comfortress."30 In this sense, we may see the maternal softness in the lines of the right angel, the Comfortress. We know that in the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible the word for wisdom (hokma), signified as a divine being, is feminine in gender. Yet I do not know how this idea affected Rublev in his icon-painting.
Rather, I guess that the creative, spiritual imagination of St. Andrew Rublev was always seeking a more practical use. In other words, his icon was made not for theological use in reasoning, but for liturgical use in adoration, prayer, and silence. Thus, only images speak in the icon. The divine image (Imago Dei) must be transformed into human beings' images. Also it must form the image of the community, and of society. Lifted from the holy image of a maternal, female God to actual experience, the fullness of the icon is more heartwarming than merely stimulating the intellect. In the icon of the Holy Trinity, the Trinity is not simply a speculative dogma; rather it is a living presence experienced in actual life. Drawing upon the role of women in the Orthodox church, Archimandrite Chrysostomos states:
The very message of Orthodox, then, is that men and women are called away from the erroneous 'natures' which they have taken to themselves, away from the labor and pain, to deification, to union with God, through the grace of Christ. ... If, then, the Church exalted the woman as child bearer, it is to lift her nature, to emphasize her unique social role. But should she choose to be called to the higher 'nature' of holiness, the Holy Church even more greatly honors her. In that higher calling, she gives birth to Christ, as did the Blessed Theotokos, bearing asomatos ("in an unbodily way"), as Saint Maximos says, God within her, And this potential is not that of women alone, but of men, too. The spiritual childbearing of the human is a male and female role.31
Their goals together, as Orthodox men and women, are to create a society, as much as possible, in the divine image of the Holy Trinity. As contemporary feminist theologians reconstruct their theology of the Trinity in terms of relationality, communion, or solidarity, to my mind, Rublev would want Russian Orthodox Christians to join in reconstructing the "mystery" of the Trinity, which is something that would be revealed for the understanding of their political, social life, as well as religious life in light of the image of the cross and the circle. The Cross of the Holy Trinity becomes the empowering basis for their suffering and their religious duties. The Circle of the Holy Trinity becomes the social program for each social grouping -- from family to parish, diocese, social communities, and nation -- to be transformed by shared love in the relational/circular" image of the Trinitarian God. In terms of the female image of the Trinity in the icon, I guess that Rublev would emphasize human commitment to disputing any discrimination and injustice in gender in the name of the Trinity.
Let me turn finally to my first question at the beginning of this paper. Why did Rublev's icon appear on the cover of a basic spiritual commentary on the Mass? Corless, in I Am Food, takes a personal approach to the Mass, but in the tradition of Teilhard de Chardin, he explores its cosmic setting. Here is his notion of the Holy Spirit in his book:
TO GOD IN TRINITY
Corless might see the "round dance" of the Trinity in the visual imagery of Rublev's icon. As he states, the dance of the Trinitarian image in the icon has been ceaselessly moving toward a world-transforming dance from the fifteenth century until flow. We should participate in that dance as did the Russians.
Baggley, John. Doors of Perception: Icons and Their Spiritual Significance. New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1987.
Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of A Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Anchor Book, l967.
Borozdinov, Vladimir. "The Holy Trinity of St Andrej Rublev." Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate 6 (1990): 60-62; Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate 7 (1990): 73-76.
Chrysostomos, Archmandrite. "Women in the Orthodox Church: Brief Comments from a Spiritual Perspective." Greek Orthodox Theological Review 26 (Fall, 1981): 193-200.
Corless, Roger. I Am Food: The Mass in Planetary Perspective. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co, 1981.
Evdokimoff, Paul. "The Icon of the Holy Trinity." Lutheran World 3 (1976): 166-170.
Kallistos of Diokleia. "The Human Person as an Icon of the Trinity." Sobornost 2 (1986): 6-23.
Nouwen, Henri J.M. Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons. Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1987.
Panikkar, Raimundo. The Trinity and Religious Experience of Man. New York/London, 1973.
Sölle, Dorothee, Thinking about God. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.
Suchocki, Marjorie H. "God, Sexism, and Transformation." In Reconstructing Christian Theology, eds. Rebecca S. Chopp and Mark L. Taylor. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1994.
Taylor, Joshua C. Learning to Look: A Handbook for the Visual Arts. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Tracy, David. "Approaching the Christian Understanding of God." In Systematic Theology, eds. Francis S. Fiorenza and John P. Galvin. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.