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.

The Hospitality of Abraham: The Liturgical Witness

2012pentecost23In our ongoing discussion of the typology evident in the story of Abraham’s Hospitality, we have taken a brief tour of the Biblical and Patristic understandings. In this post we will take a very brief look at how this is revealed in the Orthodox liturgy.

The primary liturgical expression of the Old Testament Trinity is during the feast of Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, when in many parishes the icon of the Holy Trinity is placed in the center of the church for veneration.1 Through this action, the earliest revelation of God’s Trinitarian nature is linked to its more complete revelation on the day of Pentecost.2

On the Sunday before Nativity, Forefathers Sunday, we find a direct reference to God’s appearance at Mamre in the Matins service: “Of old holy Abraham entertained the one Godhead in three persons; while now the Word, enthroned with the Father and the divine Spirit, comes forth for the Youths, and he is greatly praised.”3 Additionally, a tribute to Abraham’s visitation is often present in Sunday’s midnight office. Ode 8 in the 5th tone is particularly poignant: “Even that of old you might clearly reveal the triple hypostasis of the one Lordship, you appeared, my God, in human form to Abraham as he praised your single might.”4

These instances are by no means exhaustive, but seem representative. While it is beyond the scope of this discussion to trace these instances back to their origins, it is reasonable to speculate that Abraham’s encounter with the Holy Trinity appeared liturgically as early as the time of Saint John Damascene (676-749) since he is attributed with the creation of an early form of the Octoechos, in which we find the relevant verses of the Midnight Office.5 The Matins occurrences in the Menaion might possibly be even older.

In our next and final post in this series, we will take a look at the iconography relating to this story and offer some thoughts on what it all means.


1 OrthodoxWiki authors, Pentecost.

2 Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, (Yonkers:Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1982), p. 200.

3 Archimandrite Ephrem, Matins, Sunday Before NativityLiturgical Texts.

4 Archimandrite Ephrem, Midnight Office, Tone 5, Sunday.

5 Wikipedia Authors, Octoechos.

The Hospitality of Abraham: Cyril and Maximus

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So far in this short series, we have followed the development of the Church’s understanding of the story of the Hospitality of Abraham. In this post we will wrap up our discussion of the patristic dialog with Saints Cyril and Maximus.

Saint Cyril of Alexandria seems to have presented the most definitive and enduring interpretation regarding Genesis 18. The understanding expressed by Cyril seems to have prevailed and for this reason I deemed it worth the effort to translate an extended passage of his argument from an available Latin translation of the original Greek. Commenting on Genesis 18:1-3, 9-10a (LXX), Cyril writes:

Behold, clearly it says God appeared unto him, truly being three men in appearance, the Holy Abraham approaching from afar speaking not as if to three: “Lords, if indeed I have found grace in your (pl.) sight, pass not by your (pl.) son,” but calling upon the threefold Lord singularly, as if to one, so that they might turn aside unto him, he asked “when,” and as one appearing in three, even as from one persona, they said, “Where is Sarra thy wife?” and responded, “I will come when the time is ripe.”

Discern therefore, discern indeed three appearing, and each identified by its respective hypostasis,1 in word subject to the consubstantial three comprehended in one, and thus intermingling the given work of conversation among themselves. But the likenesses of this mode are obscured in a certain way and are inferior to the truth, unless in some way they are to be used as a hand leading us into knowledge of their properties, which surpass the intellect and speech (obviously the light of the divine vision will penetrate only the most pure intellects), and as from these things which fall to the senses we fly unto that which to our senses and strength of reasoning are very far.

Singular, therefore, by the unanimity of all persons, is the nature of divinity, which is over all, through all and in all: through intellectual means, verily, this is extrapolated to the holy, venerable, and consubstantial Trinity, into the Father, I say, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit… Our progenitor Abraham, therefore, was not ignorant of the worship of the Holy Trinity…2

Cyril’s portrayal of the three speaking in unison is remarkable. He describes the three who appear to Abraham as likenesses that, while not the fullness of the truth, lead us, as if by the hand, into knowledge of God. He asserts that an understanding of the Holy Trinity can be discerned from this type through the application of the intellect. With Cyril we have completed the transition from a Christological to a Trinitarian interpretation.

maximus_the_confessorSaint Maximus, in his Third Dialog on the Holy Trinity, affirms Saint Cyril’s view, arguing likewise that Abraham spoke to three as to one.3 At one point in the dialog, the dialogist known as ‘Orthodox’ literally states that “the three men were God,”4 while his challenger ‘Macedonius’ insists that only one of the three was God and the others were angels. Saint John Damascene agrees with the imagery, yet makes certain to clarify that, “Abraham saw not the nature of God, for no man ever saw God, but the image of God, and falling down he adored.”5

It is interesting to observe that many, if not most, of the arguments made by the Fathers pivot on a precise interpretation of the literal words in Genesis 18. For instance, the Fathers carefully point out an address made in the singular, or an act done in the plural (e.g. the three measures of flour). Each word of Scripture is deemed significant.

In summary, the writings of the Holy Fathers reveal a progression in understanding of the story of The Hospitality of Abraham. In the earliest times all three persons are seen to be angels. In the second century a Christological interpretation is introduced. As we progress through the later fathers, the three men come to be seen as a type of the Holy Trinity, and even as a true theophany, not only of the Son, but of the entire Trinity. Ouspensky and Lossky clarify that the differences present in the latter two views do not change the understanding of the event because all the fullness of the Godhead is present in each Person. Consequently the earlier interpretation does not preclude a Trinitarian understanding.6

In our next post in this series, we will take a brief look at the liturgical witness to this story.


1 The latin word is subsistentia, which has a very similar meaning to the Greek hypostasis.

Saint Cyril of Alexandria, ‘Pro Sancta Christianorum Religione, Adversos Libros Athei Iuliani,’ in Cyrillii Alexandriae Archiepiscopi Operum, ed. Joannis Auberti, v. 6, b. 1, p. 20.

3 Saint Maximus the Confessor, ‘Opera Omnia,’ ed. Francisci Combefis, v. 2, p. 442.

4 Tres viri fuerunt Deus.

5 Saint John Damascene, ‘On Holy Images,’ trans. Mary H. Allies, (London:Thomas Baker 1898), Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College.

6 Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, ‘The Meaning of Icons,’ (Yonkers:Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1982), p. 201.

The Hospitality of Abraham: From Christ to Trinity

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Mosaic from the Papal basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, c. 5th century

In our previous post, we found that the earliest understanding of the story of the Hospitality of Abraham was that the three visitors were angels. It didn’t take long for interpretation of this story to develop.

Saint Justin expresses an alternative view in his Dialog with Trypho. Trypho believes, as do his contemporary Jewish brethren, that God spoke to Abraham immediately prior to the appearance of the three visitors and that the visitors were merely angels. Justin argues directly from the Scriptures “that one of the three, who is both God and Lord, and ministers to Him who is in the heavens, is Lord of the two angels.”1 Justin understands the central figure of the triad to be the Son of God and those accompanying him to be angels. Saint Irenaeus corroborates Justin’s position, asserting that “two of the three were angels; but one was the Son of God…”2

Though Novatian apostatized, he provides witness to the fact that Justin’s view on Abraham’s visitation persisted in the third century. In his Treatise on the Trinity he writes, “It was not the Father, then, who was a guest with Abraham, but Christ. Nor was it the Father who was seen then, but the Son; and Christ was seen.”3

Saint Ephraim the Syrian provides fourth century confirmation of the Christological understanding of the three persons. In his commentary on Genesis he explains, “Therefore, the Lord, who had just appeared to him at the door of the tent, now appeared to Abraham clearly in one of the three.”4

While the earliest view may have been purely angelological, the bulk of the patristic witness up to this point seems to have been consistently Christological. The Church’s understanding of this theophany seems to begin evolving later in the fourth century as both Saints Ambrose and Augustine begin to see this triad as a type of the Holy Trinity.

Saint Ambrose explicitly recognizes that the appearance of the three is a type. He also perceives Trinitarian significance in the cardinalities of both the sacrifice and the gifts offered to the three.

Abraham… saw the Trinity in a type… beholding Three he worshipped One, and preserving the distinction of the Persons, yet addressed one Lord, he offered to Three the honour of his gift, while acknowledging one Power… and so he sees Three, but worships the Unity. He brings forth three measures of fine meal, and slays one victim, considering that one sacrifice is sufficient, but a triple gift; one victim, an offering of three.5

Saint Augustine followed his mentor in a similar vein, asserting more resolutely that the presence of God in the three visitors was typological. Justin had earlier argued that one of the three was Christ as evidenced by the fact that Abraham addressed the three as one. Augustine argues, specifically countering Justin’s argument, that no particular person of the three was Christ, but all three were angels. He observes that the same phenomenon occurred when Lot addressed only two as one while the third remained with Abraham. Augustine supports an iconic presence, arguing that:

This makes it much more credible that both Abraham in the three men and Lot in the two recognized the Lord, addressing Him in the singular number, even when they were addressing men… Yet there was about them something so excellent, that those who showed them hospitality as men could not doubt that God was in them as He was wont to be in the prophets…6

In our next post, we will examine a more refined expression of this understanding in the writings of Saints Cyril and Maximus.


1 Justin Martyr, ‘Dialog with Trypho’, trans. Messrs. Dods and Reith, in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.iv.lvi.html) , ed. Philip Schaff, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College, ch. 56.

2 Peter Kirby. “A Discourse in Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching,” in Early Christian Writings (http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/demonstrationapostolic.html) .

3 Novatian, ‘A Treatise of Novatian Concerning the Trinity,’ trans. Rev. Robert Ernest Wallis, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf05.vi.iii.xix.html) , ed. Philip Schaff, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College, ch. 18.

4 Saint Ephraim the Syrian, ‘Selected Prose Works,’ trans. Edward G. Matthews, Jr. and Joseph P. Amar, in The Fathers of the Church, ed. Kathleen McVey (Catholic Univ of Amer Pr 1994), v. 91, s. 15, pars. 1, p. 158.

5 Saint Ambrose of Milan, ‘Selected Works and Letters,’ trans. The Rev. H. De Romestin, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, volume 10, (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf210.iv.iii.iii.html#iv.iii.iii-p203) , ed. Philip Schaff, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College,  pars. 96.

6 Saint Augustine, ‘The City of God,’ trans. Rev. Marcus Dods, D.D., in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 1, Volume 2 (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf102.iv.XVI.29.html) , ed. Philip Schaff, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College, Book 16, ch. 29.

The Hospitality of Abraham: Intro

rublev_troitsaHaving wrapped up my diatribe on the Ark of the Covenant and its typology, I thought it might be worth a short series focusing on the typology attached to the story of Abraham’s hospitality. The typology follows a pattern similar to that of the Ark and might help to deepen our understanding of how typology develops within the Church.

What Orthodox person has not experienced Saint Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity? This icon is a depiction of the three visitors in the Genesis 18 story of Abraham’s hospitality, but to the nominal Orthodox person the icon itself may be the sole witness to Abraham’s encounter with God at Mamre. And yet, Saint Constantine considered the event to be so important that he ordered a temple to be erected near the famous oak tree at Mamre.1

While the icon may be the strongest witness experienced during the course of life in the church, a long patristic tradition witnesses to an image of God in the threefold visitation of Abraham. A prominent, though subtle, witness exists in the liturgical cycle of the church. The bulk of this short study will focus on the ‘Great Conversation’ of the Fathers, moving on to a short overview of the liturgical expression, and a brief analysis of Rublev’s icon and the related tradition.

Perhaps the earliest Christian understanding of Genesis 18 is that all three of the visitors in the story were angels. Saint Paul suggests this in his Letter to the Hebrews when he admonishes, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2 KJV).2

In the next post in this series we will follow a shift from this angelological understanding to a more Christocentric understanding.


1 Sozomen, ‘The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen,’ revised by Chester D. Hartranft, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Volume 2 (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf202.iii.vii.iv.html) , ed. Philip Schaff, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College, Book 2, ch. 4.

2 Gabriel Bunge, “The Rublev Trinity,” trans. Andrew Louth, (Yonkers: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press 2007), p. 46.