Andrei Rublev: Image of the "Holy Trinity"

Natalya Sheredega

Magazine issue: 
#3 2005 (08)

"The great never occurs by accident, and never comes as a flash of fancy: it is the word that makes countless threads long pre-planned in history meet together. The great is a synthesis of the whole that, in its parts, had gleamed with a phosphoric light amongst the entire nation; it would have never become great unless it had met the creative yearning of the entire people."1.

Father Pavel Florensky

In 1929, the Zagorsk History and Art Museum passed over the most acclaimed Russian icon, the “Holy Trinity” by Andrei Rublev, which is considered the acme of Russian national art, to the State Tretyakov Gallery; since then the icon has been kept under the constant attention of its curators and restorers. Rublev’s “Holy Trinity” has attracted thousands of people of every creed, profession and age with a common desire to worship this ideal of beauty and true spirituality, executed with perfect artistic means.

Any discussion about any work of art, whether secular or religious - all the more so when the subject is the "Holy Trinity" of Rublev -starts with certain questions: Where? (the locus), when? (the tempus), who? (the persona), why? (the causa activa), and what for? (the causa finalis).

The question of where the icon was created has raised very little debate among art historians; all are unanimous that Andrei Rublev painted the icon in the Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery. Has there been any difference of opinion between art historians about the place the icon occupied inside the Lavra? In the past, the icon was thought to have been originally situated, as the principle icon of the Trinity Cathedral, in the first tier of the iconostasis to the right of the Holy Doors.2 But Valentina Antonova has raised quite reliable evidence that the icon was originally placed at the foot of the shrine of St. Sergius of Radonezh, viewed like the altarpiece behind the Holy Table.3 In the 16th century a copy of Rublev's "Trinity" was created.4 While the original, adorned with a gilt oklad (setting frame), richly enstudded with jewels on Boris Godunov's instruction in 1600,5 was moved to the place due to the principle icon of the cathedral (possibly following its glorification as miraculous) in 16266, the copy was placed to the left of the Holy Doors, next to the icon of the Mother of God (the Hodigitria). For about 500 years the original icon occupied its place in the Trinity Cathedral of the Monastery, and was restored more than once.

In 1904-05, the well-known painter, art-collector and Tretyakov Gallery trustee Ilya Ostroukhov suggested cleaning the original image from its later layers of paint, with the Moscow Archaeological Society supporting the proposal and offering its supervision of the project. That first uncovering was done, with the consent of the Lavra authorities, by Vasily Guryanov, an icon painter and restorer, assisted by Vladimir Tyulin and A. Izraztsov. As soon as the task was completed, a photograph of the original image was taken as it was revealed to the painters.7 The final restoration was completed by a joint team of the Central Restoration Workshops and the Zagorsk History and Art Museum in 1918-19.8 It was also recognized as unacceptable to hide with a frame what was an "exclusive, in its worldwide importance, work of art" from the palette of Andrei Rublev.9

Unlike the question as to where the icon was created, no answer to the issue as to when exactly the "Holy Trinity" was created has been found to date. Those inclined to think that the icon was originally meant for the wooden Trinity Cathedral erected in 1411 think that it was taken to the stone church later. Art historians who disagree insist that the "Holy Trinity" was painted at the same time as other icons from the iconostasis in the new cathedral that is known to have been decorated by the workshop of Rublev and Daniil Chyorny in 1425-27. At present, the problem of dating the "Holy Trinity" can be scientifically summed up as: "The dispute ... can only be resolved after complex research on all icons relating to the work of Andrei Rublev."10

There is complete unanimity in the answer to the question of who is the author of the "Holy Trinity" - undoubtedly, it is Andrei Rublev. Although there have been other suggestions questioning that attribution: in the second half of the 19th century Dmitry Ro-vinsky, who believed the icon had been created by an Italian master, would assert that is was probably nothing but the news about the Klintsov original, also mentioned in the "Life of St. Sergius of Radonezh", that "enabled Ivan Snegirev to attribute the icon of the Holy Trinity to Rublev."11 But St. Philaret (Drozdov), the Metropolitan of Moscow, felt it necessary to contest such an assumption, refering to the long-established legend in the monastery that the image had been painted by Andrei Rublev in the time of St. Nikon of Radonezh.12 After the initial cleaning of the icon Nikolai Likhachev wrote: "Observations made by Guryanov confirm the belief that the icon of the Holy Trinity belongs to the brush of Rublev."13

As for the motive in painting the "Holy Trinity" (the causa ac-tiva), it remains both direct and indirect. The direct impetus is clear: St. Nikon of Radonezh gave a commission for, according to the words of the Iconographic Original, "an image for the Holy Trinity to be painted in his time, to venerate His Holy Father, St. Sergius the Wonderworker..."14 The indirect motive was indicated by Pavel Flo-rensky: "Since the cathedral was dedicated to the Holy Trinity, there should have been an icon of the Holy Trinity in it as its principle one, that would convey the spiritual essence of the cathedral - its name embodied in colour. It is impossible to imagine, though, that the disciple of Reverend Sergius' disciple, almost his spiritual grandson, almost his contemporary, who was already painting icons when Reverend Sergius was alive, and probably knew him personally, should have dared to substitute the composition of the Holy Trinity icon that existed at the time of Reverend Sergius, and was approved by him, for a composition of his own copied from the same authentic image. The miniatures of the 'Life of St Sergius of Radonezh' performed by Epiphanius the Wise do not show the 'Holy Trinity' icon in St. Sergius' cell during the first half of his life, but only during the second; thus, the miniatures testify to its creation during the middle period of St. Sergius' life ... In the iconography of the 'Holy Trinity' Andrei Rublev was not an independent creator, but only an executor who followed the creative design and the original composition suggested by Sergius."15

Now we face the most complicated task of discovering the major reason - the causa finalis - for which the icon was painted, its goal, and its significance for the world in which we live. Any icon combines a dogmatic philosophy as well as an ethical and ideological exhortation and the artistic features of a painting.

Dogmatically, the sense of the icon is based on the postulate that "the existence of the image in the world is a matter of God's preordination, for in God's eternal and unchanging counsel, as if in the conception, there are depictions and samples of those things which are to exist because of Him."16 About the ethical and ideological exhortation St. John of Damascus spoke in his "Apologies against Those who Decry Holy Images", with which he addressed the Seventh Ecumenical Council calling on renowned painters for brave deeds, to set forth in their art the images of the Old and New Testaments, so that those who were not learned and could not read the Holy Scripture, would be able - by examining those stories - to enjoy the lives of holy men and their good deeds, for "what a book is to the literate, that an image is to the illiterate..."17 The artistic language of iconography reveals itself as a result of thorough analysis of the work of art and, in the case of religious painting, it should also be remembered that "speaking of the forms the image may take, the Church Fathers do not accentuate so much the importance of the character as that of the live, spontaneous conveyance of the original image achieved through a factual projection of the reality."18

Any interpretation of the dogmatic sense of the Holy Trinity as it is realized in the iconographic tradition of the Old Testament Trinity image should start with a glance at the original biblical story. The 18th book of Genesis narrates the story of how the Lord appeared to Abraham in the plains of Mamre when he was sitting at his tent door. As he looked up and saw three men standing at a distance, Abraham ran to meet them, bowed and said: "My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away ..." (Gen. 18.3) Further the Bible relates the meal Abraham and Sarah hastened to make and set before their guests. At the meal the Lord promised the couple, well stricken in age, the birth of a son, Isaac. At the end of the meal Abraham showed them the way to Sodom and Gomorrah. And on the way the Lord told Abraham the terrible fate that awaited the two towns, "because their sin is very grievous". As the men turned their faces away, Abraham approached the Lord with a plea to spare the inhabitants of the sinful cities on certain conditions. Then the Lord went away, and Abraham returned to his dwelling.

"If we follow that long and difficult route from the plains of Mamre and the catacombs of Rome, to Ravenna and the islands of Patmos and Sicily, through Capadoccia and Constantinople, then to the old Russian principalities of Kiev, Vladimir and Suzdal, Novgorod, and, finally, Moscow, to the shrine of Reverend Sergius, it enables us to find out why, when and where the scene of the 'Hospitality of Abraham' became understood as the Old Testament Trinity."19 None of the Apostolic Fathers had ever doubted that the episode narrated the story of one of the two known apparitions of God to Abraham. There has, however, been disagreement about the following: firstly, whether it was God accompanied by two Angels that appeared before Abraham; secondly, were they just three Angels whose images enabled the faithful to see the Godhead in them; and thirdly, perhaps the three Angels were to symbolize the three persons of the Holy Trinity - God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost.20

Summing up these three interpretations, the priest A. Lebedev wrote: "Comparing all these three points of view, we can come to the conclusion that, although the one who appeared before Abraham as Jehovah, is clearly different from the other angels who were later sent to Sodom, the very number 'three' evidently points to the triune of the persons in the Godhead."21 St. Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow, expresses the same point of view. "The iconographic tradition of the Church," he says, "to portray the mystery of the Holy Trinity as three Angels who have come to Abraham's tent, reveals that the pious antiquity saw in the number of those Angels a symbol of the Holy Trinity."22

Nevertheless, it was the third of these interpretations that proved predominant in Russia, and its portrayal created the dogmatic Orthodox meaning of the "Holy Trinity" icon. Moreover, it was nothing else but that dogmatic dominant embodied, thanks to St. Sergius' deeds and St. Andrei Rublev's icons, in the Russian religious mentality and practice that saved Russia from the temptation of separating into a Uniate Church, and helped the Russian Orthodox Church to advocate its theological views in the debate about the doctrine of Filioque.

Finally, what are the iconographic and painterly skills and methods that enabled Andrei Rublev to convey such a high pitch of dogmatic meaning in his "Holy Trinity"? Let the homily of Father George Florovsky help us to understand it: "The right way of theologizing is only to be perceived through the perspective of years."23 It was back in the time of Eusebius Caesariensis (c. 330 AD) that at the foot of the Oak of Mamre there was a picture showing the three Angels who appeared to Abraham.24 According to Eusebius, the figures in the picture were accumbent, as was traditional in the Hellinistic world. Eusebius wrote: "Two, each at either side, with the mightier one, whose rank was higher, in the middle. The one shown in the middle is Our Lord, the Saviour ... He, who has taken unto Himself the appearance and shape of Man, revealed Himself as He was to the pious arch-father Abraham and He also confided to him the knowledge of His Father."25 A similar story about the picture at the foot of the Oak of Mamre was also related by Julius Africanus (c.160-240 AD). 26
There is a story of how Emperor Constantine the Great destroyed the pagan altar near the oak of Mamre in Palestine in 314 AD, the altar being placed in front of a picture of Abraham's hospitality.27 Following the Second Ecumenical Council, which approved the dogma of the Holy Trinity, the image of the Old Testament Trinity became quite common. The mosaic of the great Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome (dating from the mid-5th century) shows three figures seated next to one another, with triangular-shaped pieces of bread in front of them. The central figure is depicted with a cross-shaped nimbus over his head, which may mean that the ancient Church favoured the idea that Abraham received Jesus Christ accompanied by two Angels.28

The miniature image in the Oktoih (from the 11th-12th centuries) kept in the Vatican portrays the three Holy guests as wingless, with the figure in the centre wearing a cross-shaped nimbus. Moreover, the characters are not placed according to the principle of isocephalia, in other words, they are not presented in line, and have the same height, but make a half-circle. Such a depiction of characters became customary in the Eastern provinces, probably in Syria. The isocephalic composition is more likely to pertain to the earlier period of Christian art and to its Western branch, for it conveys the equality of the characters, which agreed with the teachings of St. Augustine and other Holy Fathers of the Western Church.29 The Eastern Church, especially in the provinces, interpreted the subject differently and Orthodox iconography tended to see it as the appearance of God accompanied by two Angels, which, consequently, led to the traditional composition of the "Holy Trinity" generally accepted in Russia - although there were rare exceptions, like the Pskov "Old Testament Trinity". The round compositions of later periods reveal some details which testify to the fact that the icon-painters tended to portray more often the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, than the appearance of Christ in the company of two Angels. Thus, the fresco in Karakilis (from the 11th century) shows each of the three figures with a cross-shaped nimbus over their heads. Such nimbi can be found on the icon "Otechestvo [Fatherland]" (from the 16th century, in the Tretyakov Gallery). Further evolution of the "Holy Trinity" composition displays the idea of the triune Godhead - God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost -on a growing scale. The table, for instance, portrayed as semi-circular in the earlier icons, with the aim of focusing on the central figure of the Trinity, acquired, at the time of the Paleologues, a tendency to be depicted as rectangular, as there was a tendency to encircle the whole composition and to give the images of the Angels the same height.

Andrei Rublev achieves the same effect in his "Holy Trinity" by depicting the central Angel figure with a bowed head (in earlier images only the right and the left Angels were bowing their heads). This brings the impression of the circular movement, which is essential in presenting the Godhead as a triune without portraying each of the Holy Trinity individually. The Three are seen as a unity, not as three separate figures. The iconographer achieved his goal both dogmatically and as a painter. His palette, full of light with a pred- omi-nance of gold, the shining ochre, delicate shades of green, pink and violet, and his inimitable sky-blue, too, in combination with the fine rhythm of lines and perfect composition produces an image of unearthly beauty, heavenly harmony. The Orthodox Church accepted the "iconographic dogma" of Rublev's image of the Holy Trinity in the mid-16th century when the "Stoglavy Sobor" (the One-Hundred-Head Council, a meeting of 100 senior church figures) canonized it as the authorized model image obligatory for other icon-painters to copy and paint "like Andrei Rublev and the famous Greek artists of the preceeding time".30

The period of the 14th-15th centuries, the time of Andrei Rublev's life and work, was of paramount importance in the history of the Russian state: national culture was on a rise, echoing the Russian people's aspiration for unity that was a prerequisite for casting off the yoke of the Mongols.31 "The Russian Orthodox Church played the greatest role, at the time, in forging the Russian state and Russian national unity. The Metropolitan, head of the Church, moved from Vladimir to Moscow, thus stressing the importance of Moscow as not only the capital city, but as the centre of Russian Christianity as well."32

Such was the historical background in which Andrei Rublev created the icon of the "Holy Trinity". Florensky wrote: "We melt with reverence, we are amazed at and almost stung by neither the subject of Rublev's oeuvre, nor the epitome of the Three or the Cup on the table, nor the wings, but by the veil of the noumenal world suddenly switched off ... Among the rapidly changing circumstances of the time, among quarrels and feuding, general barbarism and Tartar depredations, among that profound non-peace . your mind's eye sees the indisturbable, inviolable peace, the 'Godly peace' of heaven. The antagonism and hatred which reign on earth are set against a mutual love flowing in perpetual agreement, in a perpetual silent conversation, in the perpetual unity of heaven."33 There comes the conclusion that the "Holy Trinity" was, on the one hand, the result of the spiritual and historic progress of the Russian people, and encouraged them on the way to a new spiritual and historic endeavour, such as national unity and mutual love; and a preference for heavenly values over earthly ones, on the other hand.

The developments of the 14th century made it obvious that the future Russian state would be multi-national, as was seen in the deeds of St. Stephan of Perm who worked to educate the Zyryan people. As peoples never come to live together unless they have some common interest, it forms the common memory and common tradition of the past without which a nation cannot exist. But memory is not all: a viable nation must have a general programme and general idea for its future. The ethical and ideological significance of Andrei Rublev's oeuvre is that the image of the "Holy Trinity" managed to blend the past and present spiritual experience of the people and its future which made up the fundamental idea of the nation-state.

When Rublev was canonized in 1988, the Russian Orthodox Church confirmed that great significance of the "Holy Trinity" for Russia as well as for the whole Orthodox world in the iconographic image of St. Andrei Rublev holding the "Holy Trinity" in his hands, and in the words of his Troparion (Saint's day anthem).

  1. Florensky, Pavel. Collection of works, vol. 2. Moscow, 1996, p.360.
  2. see: Golubinsky, Yevgeny. "Prepodobny sergei Radonezhsky and sozdannaya im Troitskaya Lavra" [Reverend Sergius of Radonezh and the Trinity Lavra that He Created], Moscow, 1909, p.185. This oeuvre features the Trinity Cathedral iconostasis.
  3. See: Antonova, Valentina. "O pervonachalnom meste Troitsy' Andreya Rubleva [On the initial position of "The Holy Trinity" by Andrei Rublev]. The Tretyakov Gallery Materials and Research. Issue 1. Moscow, 1956. According to Antonova, it was, probably, indicated by the words: "в похвалу... Сергию чудотворцу" [to the praise... of Sergius the Wonderworker]. The extract the words have been taken from belongs to the Stroganov Iconographic Original (late 16th century). Its text can be translated as follows: "Reverend Father Andrei of Radonezh, the icon-painter named Rublev who painted many holy icons, all of them miraculous . had earlier lived in obedience with Reverend Father Nikon of Radonezh. He ordered an image for the Holy Trinity to be painted in his time, to venerate His Holy Father, St. Sergius the Wonderworker..." (See also: Buslayev, Fyodor. "Istoricheskiye ocherki russkoi narodnoi slovesnosti i iskusstva" [Historical Essays of the Russian Folk Literature and Art], vol. 2. Moscow, 1861, pp.379 -380). Some researchers refer to the town of Klintsov of the former Novgorod-Seversk vicariate where the ancient manuscript was found. It was much later that it became the property of Count Stroganov. The manuscript enabled writing "The life of St. Nikon of Radonezh" published in 1786. The manuscript also contained the Iconographic Original.
  4. See: Guryanov, Vasily. "Dve mestnye ikony Svyatoi Troitsy v Troitskom sobore Svyato-Troit-skoi Sergiyevoi Lavry i ikh restavratsiya" [Two Local Icons of the Holy Trinity in the Trinity Cathedral of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra and their Restoration]. Moscow, 1906, p.5.
  5. See: Kondakov, Nikodim. "Russkiye klady. Issledovaniye drevnostei velikoknyazheskogo peri-oda" [Russian Buried Treasures. Research of the Antiques of the Time of the Grand Principalities], vol. 1. Moscow, 1896, p. 175.
  6. See: Golubinsky, op. cit., see note 2, pp. 185 -186. True, it was as early as 1641 that the icon was referred to as "miraculous".
  7. See: Guryanov, op.cit., see note 4, table 1 and fig. 2.
  8. The cleaning was made by Grigory Chirikov (of faces), Ivan Suslov, Yevgeny Bryagin and Vladimir Tyulin. In 1926, Bryagin made the final uncovering of later layers of paint and restoration colouring. See: Dictionary of Russian icon-painters of the 11th-17th centuries. Moscow: Indrik, 2003, p. 543.
  9. Olsufiev, Yury. "Opis ikon Troitse-Sergiyevoi Lavry" [Inventory of the Icons of the Holy Trin-ity-St. Sergius Lavra]. Sergiyev, 1920, pp. 15, 25.
  10. See: Dictionary, op. cit., see note 8, p. 544.
  11. Quoted by Prof. Archpriest L.Voronov. "Andrei Rublev - veliky khudozhnik Drevnei Rusi" [Andrei Rublev: The Great Artist of the Ancient Russia] in: "Theological Oeuvres", No.14, 1975, p. 86. Reference to Dmitry Rovinsky. "Obozreniye ikon-opisaniya v Rossii do kontsa XVII veka" [Review of Icon-painting in Russia before the late 17th Century].St Petersburg, 1903, p.40.
  12. See: "Sobraniye mnenii i otzyvov Filareta, mitropolita Moskovskogo i Kolomenskogo, po uchebnym i tserkovno-gosudarstvennym voprosam" [Collection of Accounts and Reviews by Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow and Kolomna, on the Matters of Education, Church and the State]. St Petersburg, 1887, accessory vol., p. 331-342.
  13. Likhachev, Nikolai. "Manyera pisma Andreya Rubleva" [Andrei Rublev's Manner of Painting]. St Petersburg, 1907, p. 104
  14. See: op. cit., note 2, pp. 185 - 186
  15. Florensky, Pavel. op. cit., note 1, pp. 362 - 364.
  16. St. John of Damascus. "Tri zashchititelnykh slova protiv poritsayushchikh svyatyie ikony ili izobrazheniya" [Three Apologies against Those who Decry Holy Images]. St Petersburg, 1893, p. 8.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Archbishop Sergius. "Bogoslovskiye idyei v tvorchestve Andreya Rubleva" [Theological Ideas in Andrei Rublev's Oeuvres] in "Theological Oeuvres", No. 22, Moscow, 1981, p. 5.
  19. Such research was made in "Troitsa' ili 'Pyatidesyat-nitsa'?" by Nikolai Ozolin in: "Philosophy of Russian Religious Art", issue 1, Moscow, 1993, pp. 375-384.
  20. Procopius of Gaza (6th century), for example, alleges the existence of the following three parallel accounts: "As for the three men who appeared to Abraham," he writes, "there are some who assert that they were three Angels; others think that one of them was God while the others were His Angels; and other ones see the prototype of the Holy and Co-essential Trinity" in: Procopius of Gaza, vol. 87, p. 363 (PG, t. 87, 363).
  21. Priest A. Lebedev. "Vetkho-zavetnoiye veroucheniye vo vremena patriarkhov" [The Old Testament Beliefs at the Time of the Patriarchs], issue 2. St Petersburg, 1886, p. 122.
  22. Ibid., p. 128.
  23. Florovsky, George. "Puti russkogo bogosloviya" [Ways of Russian Theology]. Paris, 1937, p. 508.
  24. St. John of Damascus, op. cit., note 16, p. 127.
  25. John of Damascus, op cit., see note 16, p. 127.
  26. "Troitse-Sergiyeva Lavra" [The Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra]. Collection of articles. Sergiyev Posad, 1919, p. 127.
  27. See: Ainalov, Dmitry. "Mozaiki IV i V vekov" [Mosaics of the 4th and 5th Centuries]. St Petersburg, 1895, p. 112.
  28. Ibid., p. 111.
  29. See: Malitsky, Nikolai. "K istorii kompozitsii vetkhozavetnoi Troitsy" [On the History of the Old Testament "Trinity" Composition]. Prague, 1928, pp. 34-36.
  30. The Life of Saint Reverend Andrei Rublev. In: "Canonization of the Saints". Troitse-Sergeiyeva Lavra, 1988, p. 58.
  31. See: Likhachev, Dmitry. "Kultura Rusi epokhi obrazovaniya Russkogo natsionalnogo gosu-darstva" [The Culture of Russia of the Time of the Russian National State Formation]. OGIZ, 1946, pp. 15, 33.
  32. Archbishop Sergius, op. cit., see note 18, p.9.
  33. Ibid., p. 363.





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