The Hospitality of Abraham: Iconography

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In our ongoing discussion of the Hospitality of Abraham, we have followed the story from the Old testament, through the New Testament, the writings of the Fathers, and the Liturgical witness. This final installment will take a brief look at the iconography and explore a few thoughts to help wrap up the discussion.

I have personally experienced an explanation of Rublev’s icon by several parish priests. Many of the aspects of the story in Genesis 18 are visible, including the famous oak tree at Mamre, which is seen near the top and just to the right of center, and Abraham’s ‘tabernacle’ or tent in the upper left of the icon. Food has been placed before the men by Abraham. The three men take on angelic form as is noted in Hebrews 13:2.

In addition, Saint Andrei Rublev has added some elements that cannot be directly discerned from the story in Genesis, but from later developments in Theology. For instance, the colors of the central figure’s garments closely match the typical colors that Christ wears in other icons. The green on the right-hand figure is reminiscent of the color we see most prominently at the feast of Pentecost, representing the Holy Spirit. Both of the rightmost figures are inclining their heads toward the leftmost figure, representing deference to the primus inter pares (i.e. the Father). The negative space between the two outermost figures approximates the shape of a chalice, while the central figure is inside this chalice. And a nearly perfect circle can be discerned in the outermost outlines of the three figures.

What has been left out is also of interest. Genesis 18:8 describes Abraham standing nearby under the oak tree and verse 10 describes Sarah standing in the doorway of her tent. Unlike earlier portrayals, Rublev chose to exclude some of these key features of the story so that the focus might center on the Holy Trinity. Even the colors of the angels are more vibrant than the colors of their surroundings.

Screen Shot 2017-03-17 at 2.37.06 PMThe Rublev icon is generally seen to be the ultimate evolution of the iconographic representation of the Old Testament Trinity. However, it appears that the iconographic tradition lagged behind the patristic tradition. Bunge claims that depictions of the story were from the beginning angelological1 and notes that we begin to encounter Christologically oriented depictions around the year 1000.2 The icon on the right shows such a Christological rendition, in which you can see the usual cross, indicating Christ, in the nimbus around the central figure. The tradition culminates in Rublev’s famous icon (c. 1410) in which we seem to have reverted to a purely angelological depiction, but find elements, however subtle, of the more advanced Trinitarian theology of the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers.

Conclusion

While knowledge of the evolution of the patristic understanding and iconographic tradition is edifying, the most important aspect of such a study is to obtain an understanding of what the church presently teaches us through an active participation in the life of the Church. The present teaching is the culmination of this progressive deepening process.

I believe that the first and foremost dimension of this teaching is the confluence of the Feast of Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, with the veneration of the icon of the Holy Trinity. The icon placed in the context of the birth of the church and the complete revelation of the Holy Trinity juxtaposes the type with the antetype. We see at once the Old Testament promise and its New Testament fulfillment. We see the beginning of the Old Testament Church juxtaposed with the birth of the New Testament Church. And we see a veiled image of God alongside a fuller revelation of the Holy Trinity. However, the most startling picture for me is Saint Cyril’s portrait of three persons walking and speaking in unison. The Trinity truly is One in essence and undivided.


1 Gabriel Bunge, “The Rublev Trinity,” trans. Andrew Louth, (Yonkers: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press 2007), p. 52.

2 Ibid, p. 48.

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