Okay, so we are at part 2 of three on Icons, this I entitled Theology in Art and Color because Icons are far more than just pretty paintings, there is deep theological significance behind each one. Just as a work of art has a message from the artist beyond what one sees on the surface, so too does an Icon have a message beyond its’ artistic appearance – a message from God, presented to us through the skills of the Iconographer, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, much the same as Sacred Scripture was inspired by the Spirit of God.
To give a better understanding of what I am talking about, we are going to look at one of the most beloved Icons in the Eastern Church, The Icon of the Trinity. The Icon was created by the famed Russian Iconography Andrei Rublev, c.1410. Rublev based this Icon on an earlier work entitled The Hospitality of Abraham, making small changes to center the attention on the Holy Trinity. I would suggest opening the Icon in a separate window so that you can follow along without having to scroll up and down.
The Icon of the Holy Trinity
Before going further I encourage you to spend some time studying the Icon in detail, pay attention to everything in it. Everything you see has a much deeper meaning, and it is that meaning we will explore in great detail. But, just as with a work of art, each Icon has a personal meaning to the viewer, one that only the viewer him/her-self can see and interpret.
So, now, if you’re ready, I present an in-depth theological interpretation of The Icon of the Holy Trinity:
- Andrei Rublev created the Icon ~1410 to commemorate the blessing of the Church of the Holy Trinity Monastery in Russia.
- Originally called the Hospitality of Abraham and depicted the three angels who visited Abraham. Rublev removed Abraham and Sarah from the Icon to concentrate on the three angels.
- By tradition there can be no Icon of the Father or the Spirit, as these have no earthly form. Icons can only portray people and event that actually occurred.
- This is one of the greatest Icons ever created, and is a theological and doctrinal masterpiece. Revered by both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.
- There are three figures, angels, with identical physical features (faces, hair, etc.) showing that there is a sameness, an equality among the three beings.
- In the Bible the word used for angel is elohim, it is also the ancient word for god.
- Each figure is holding a scepter, which is a sign of divinity in the ancient world.
- The central figure represents Christ. This is because he is wearing the royal vestures of the Byzantine period, the clothing he is always depicted as wearing in Icons – a royal red tunic, with a blue cloak, and a golden sash depicting power or authority.
- The figure is shown blessing a chalice, representing Holy Communion. He is blessing it in the manner used during the time of Rubelev – two fingers representing the divine and human natures of Christ.
- In ancient times the head of the table was not in the middle, but was at the side. The figure to Christ’s right is, therefore, seated at the head of the table, and so is the Father.
- Note the other two figures, they are depicted as bowing towards the figure on the right, showing honor to the Father.
- The central and right figure are shown as blessing the offering on the table (chalice containing the blood of the lamb), the Father’s hand is preparing to receive the offering.
- This leaves the third figure to represent the Holy Spirit.
- Behind Jesus is the Oak of Mamre
- The three figures form a perfect circle. Using the shoulders you can draw a line from the Spirit, around Christ, to the Father, the circle is left open.
- Each of the three figures is holding a scepter as a sign of power and authority. Additionally, the scepters are identical in every way, signifying that the power and authority is shared equally among the three. In the ancient world scepters would designation not just authority, but position, the scepter of the king would be different from that of his heir apparent, and different as well from the priestly ranks.
- Note also the table, in typical ancient artwork the front of the table is shown smaller than the rear, this is meant to draw the viewer into the Icon – the table is open for you to join in.
- The colors in the Icon form a harmony, and add to the ousios of the Trinity.
- The red and gold of Christ’s tunic combine to create orange, which is the color of the cloak worn by the Father.
- The blue and the gold from Christ combine to make green, which is the color of the Spirit’s cloak.
- The Holy Spirit is shown in green, the color of life. Spirit means breath, and in Genesis we are told that “God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the Breath of Life.” (Gen 1:30), giving to man God’s Holy Spirit.
- Behind the Father is a building, the building represents the New Jerusalem.
- Observe how the feet come together, follow up the legs to the front of the table, then follow to the rear of the table. The image that is created is one of a chalice, with Christ as the offering.