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Mystery of the Trinity

Dominique Pierre - La Croix International - Mon, Jun 17th 2019

Famous icon poignantly symbolizes the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Andrei Rublev's Icon of the Holy Trinity 

Russian painter Andrei Rublev's 'The Hospitality of Abraham' icon from the 15th century has long been perceived as an evocation of the Trinity.

Three characters are sitting around three sides of a table, leaving open the symbolic possibility of the viewer joining them.

They have the same thick wavy hair, the same face. If their lips are closed, it is probably because they prefer silence to chatting and, as they know each other intimately, a glance or a gesture is enough for them to understand each other.

Each of the faces stands out on a wide halo highlighted by the curve of their wings.

From the point of view of composition, the three halos are inscribed in a large circle centered on the hand of the central character.

The orientation of the heads of the two angels on the right, the curve of the tree, as well as the different inclinations of their sticks, suggest to the eye that this circle is not static, but dynamic, and that it turns from right to left.

The religious work encapsulates the mysterious relationship between the Father, the Son and the Spirit

The first subject of this icon is "Abraham's hospitality." The image evokes an episode from the book of Genesis (cf. 18:1-15): while Abraham was staying near the Mamre oak tree.

Three visitors introduced themselves to him; the patriarch welcomed them and prepared a meal.

The identity of these visitors is mysterious: the text speaks of the "Lord" who appears to Abraham (Gen 18:1), then of "three men" (Gen 18:2), and continues by oscillating between the singular and the plural.

This is why the Christian tradition quickly saw in these visitors an evocation of the mystery of the Trinity: the only God is at the same time Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

But the God who reveals himself remains 'Unrecognizable' and, on the spiritual path, the one who claims to "know" is on the wrong path.

The icon does not therefore directly represent the three divine persons (unrepresentable in Eastern spirituality), but it passes through the mediation of these three archangels, images of their Creator, to introduce us to the mysterious relationships of the Trinity.

A relationship open to men

Many books and articles have been written on this icon and, depending on the authors, the attribution of each of the archangels to the persons of the Trinity varies.

Who can claim to say, when he perceives the action of God, what comes from the Father, the Son or the Spirit?

Without considering that others are "in error," I will accept here the option that seems to me to be the most plausible and also the most widespread: the angel on the left evokes the Father, the angel in the center the Son and the angel on the right the Spirit.

As in the icons of Christ the Pantocrator, a mostly Eastern Orthodox or Eastern Catholic theological concept equivalent to an image in Western art known as Christ in Majesty, it has come to suggest Christ as a mild but stern, all-powerful judge of humanity.

The Son wears the red tunic that symbolizes his humanity and his given life and the blue mantle that evokes his divinity. Placed above it, the tree that refers to the Mamre oak is an allusion to the cross, the tree of life.

The Son naturally turns to the Father: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was turned to God" (Jn 1:1). Above it, the architecture depicted undoubtedly evokes the "house of the Father" to the "many dwellings" of which Jesus speaks in the Gospel (cf. Jn 14:2). The angel on the right, whose coat has green reflections, evokes the Spirit who enlivens.

Their relationship is not closed; it is open to men. The cup, around which they are gathered, symbolizes God's great love for men, which will be fully expressed in the gift that the Son will give of himself.

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