The monk Andrei Rublev (c. 1360 – 1430) was a medieval Russian who painted Orthodox icons and frescoes. Little is known about his life, and only one work is known with certainty to be his alone – the icon of the Trinity. But since the Trinity icon is considered the greatest of its kind, and one of the finest works of religious art ever created, Andrei Rublev’s place in history is secure. Here is a photograph of it:
In 2007, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press published The Rublev Trinity: the Icon of the Trinity by the Monk-Painter Andrei Rublev. Its author is Father Gabriel Bunge, a Benedictine monk in Switzerland. The book was originally published in German, in 1994 (and it has also been translated into several other languages besides English). The book is 120 pages long and has 23 color plates. In it, Father Bunge expounds masterfully on the more than thousand-year-old iconographic tradition behind the icon of the Trinity, and he gives the contemporary believer a deeper appreciation of the icon’s timeless message. The fact that Fr. Bunge is from the Western, rather than the Eastern, Christian tradition is noted by the author of the book’s Foreword, Sergei Averintsev (author of the groundbreaking “encyclopedia” articles I referred to in an earlier post), who writes:
Should I regret that despite so many attempts from the Russian perspectives of art history, intellectual history, and even theology, nothing equal to this work has appeared? Or, quite the contrary, give rein to pure joy that the icon, which for every Russian believer expresses the palladium, the sign and meaning of Holy Russia, has been so well understood by a Western Benedictine monk, so perfectly explained? Certainly, the latter.
I recommend Fr. Bunge’s book without reservation to all who love Tarkovsky’s film, Andrei Rublev. In particular it will enhance your appreciation of the final (color) sequence in the film that shows icons attributed to Rublev, of which the portrayal of the icon of the Trinity is the centerpiece. In the penultimate chapter of the book, “The Johannine Pentecost,” Fr. Bunge writes that the Trinity icon depicts “this mystery of the grace of the Holy Spirit. From this milieu sprang an icon of the Holy Trinity with attributes never seen before, influenced by the theology of the Pentecostal feast. The attributes that Rublev used to make visible his inspiration are the postures and gestures of the three angels, to which we now want to turn.”
Here, it is well to state that the usual interpretation of the three angels in the Trinity icon, and the one that Fr. Bunge follows, takes them to represent Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, from left to right. Fr. Bunge continues:
Let us now look at the posture and gesture of the three angels. The Son bows towards the Father and looks at him. His right hand seems to point at the chalice; yet, at the same time, beyond it towards the Spirit. It is evident that this is part of the design of the painter because the right hand of the Son was originally closed and only the index finger pointed over the chalice to the Spirit, which became clear in the restoration of the icon. This peculiar position of the finger must have seemed incomprehensible to the first copyists of the fifteenth century because they added the middle finger to the index finger. In this sense, even the original has been touched up. Sadly, the restorers at the beginning of the twentieth century did not undo this early retouching and significantly changed the sense of the gesture by making it one of blessing instead of referring.
This apparently trifling detail – the Son’s gesture of pointing to the Spirit – makes clear that the attention of the painter is directed at the Spirit, in contrast to the pattern of composition that shows the Son, traditionally, as the focal point. The Father’s posture and gesture confirm this, for the Father, apparently, returns neither the gaze nor the gesture of the Son, but looks at the Spirit, to whom his right hand, raised in blessing, is directed. The Spirit, finally, bows his head humbly before the Father, and his right hand, lowered towards the table, seems to want to underline this movement.
What we see, writes Fr. Bunge, is “a movement . . . a wordless conversation between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” and what we have is “a depiction in colour and shape of the Johannine account of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, which is completely shot through with the mystery, now being revealed, of the Triune God.” Fr. Bunge continues:
In an infinitely tender way, Andrei Rublev understood how to make this Johannine Pentecost manifest. The movement between the three divine persons, the intra-Trinitarian conversation, proceeds from the Son: With entreaty he looks at the Father, while his right hand points to the chalice of his Passion and beyond that to the Spirit. This look and this gesture intimate the request for the sending of the Paraclete, which only becomes possible through the self-sacrifice of the Son. The Father, who always hears the Son (Jn 11.42), fulfils this request: His gaze is directed to the Spirit, who is enthroned with him behind the altar table, and his right hand bestows on him the blessing for this completion of the saving work of the Son. The Holy Spirit, however, bows his head in humble assent, which is shown by his lowered right hand. Behind the Paraclete, the rock – probably represented as cracked by Rublev – suggests in a symbol that the life-giving streams of the Holy Spirit pour forth from the opened side of the mystical rock, that is, Christ. . . .
Rublev’s brilliant achievement, therefore, consists in having created an icon, which for the first time not only depicts the three divine hypostases, but also manifests each of them in their unchangeable uniqueness as persons, that is, in their relationship to the other persons, insofar as this is known in their individual activity in the history of salvation: going out from the Father, through the Son in the Holy Spirit – and again in the Spirit returning to the Father through the Son.
Many of us in the Western Christian tradition, where theology is primarily a “bookish” affair, are less familiar with the icon’s role in the Eastern tradition as a kind of window into the transcendent, and may therefore have to stretch our spiritual “muscles” to accept Rublev as a theologian (and not just a painter). But in Russia today, as Robert Bird notes in his excellent book, Andrei Rublev, “one can find Rublev mentioned as Russia’s premier theologian in the medieval period, which underscores the experiential and visual nature of Russian spirituality.”