ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Old Testament Trinity

The origin and significance of an icon from the 15th century remains a mystery.

A simple yet profound biblical scene of three angels resting has been powerfully interpreted in perhaps the most famous icon ever produced. The “Hospitality of Abraham” or “Old Testament Trinity” painted by Andrew Rublev, a Russian monk who lived in the early 15th century, is believed to be a mysterious representation of the Holy Trinity revealed in Old Testament times.

Andrew Rublev’s work expresses the principles of composition and harmony inherent in classical art. The economy and simplicity of his art serve to express the deep theological content of the image.

Rublev, who studied under St. Nikon at the monastery of the Holy Trinity near Moscow had an enormous influence on the development of Russian icon painting.

Painted between 1408 and 1425 Rublev’s icon depicts chapter 18 of Genesis. “Yahweh appeared to him at the Oak of Mamre while he was sitting by the entrance of the tent during the hottest part of the day. He looked up, and there he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them he ran from the entrance of the tent to meet them, and bowed to the ground. ‘My lord,’ he said, ‘I beg you, if I find favor with you, kindly do not pass your servant by. A little water shall be brought; you shall wash your feet and lie down under the tree. Let me fetch a little bread and you shall refresh yourselves before going further. That is why you have come in your servant’s direction.’ They replied, ‘Do as you say.’

“Abraham hastened to the tent to find Sarah. ‘Hurry,’ he said, ‘knead three bushels of flour and make loaves.’ Then running to the cattle Abraham took a fine and tender calf and gave it to the servant, who hurried to prepare it. Then taking cream, milk and the calf he had prepared, he laid all before them, and they ate while he remained standing near them under the tree.

‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ they asked him. ‘She is in the tent,’ he replied. Then his guest said, ‘I shall visit you again next year without fail, and your wife will then have a son.’ Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well on in years, and Sarah had ceased to have her monthly periods. So Sarah laughed to herself, thinking, ‘Now that I am past the age of childbearing, and my husband is an old man, is pleasure to come my way again!’” This came to be as the Lord said and in the Spring Sarah bore Isaac.

The three who appeared to Abraham are distinct, yet also referred to as “The Lord,” in the singular. Is this interpretation of God to be understood as three yet one, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

The Byzantine Liturgy confidently proclaims on the Sunday of the Patriarchs, “the Holy Abraham welcomes of old the Godhead, Who is one in three Persons.”

With line and paint Rublev details the simplicity, nobility and sacredness of the event in Genesis in a way unsurpassed. Because the three guests portrayed in the icon are angels, each alike, yet each a little different they reveal something of the mystery of the Godhead: one in substance, undivided and yet distinct.

Many have tried to determine which angel is supposed to represent the Father, which the Son, which the Holy Spirit. Rublev does not say, probably on purpose, to allow those who contemplate the icon to be still and know the wonder of God, transcendent yet also with us.

In the contour of the three figures one notices a large circle, a reminder of God’s eternity and unity. In the placement of the angels’ heads and bodies one sees the outline of a cross, the sign of redemption by Jesus Christ. One also finds several triangles in the icon, the most common symbol of the Holy Trinity. These geometric shapes may not be immediately apparent, but gradually they emerge, adding to the general effect of tranquility conveyed in this masterpiece of sacred art.

Evident too in the icon are a tent, a tree, a desert rock, and a vessel with the head of the sacrificial lamb, referring again to the Genesis account of the scene. The simple objects present in the icon recall that God came and comes to His people in seemingly ordinary circumstances and places, yet also in veiled and mystic ways.

During the Byzantine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom the faithful sing of their life in the Trinity in these words:

“Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Trinity one in substance and undivided.”

May the icon of Andrew Rublev be a constant reminder of the nearness and mercy of God.

Br. Christian Leisy is a Benedictine monk with a special interest in Byzantine spirituality and iconography.

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