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Articles
The Icon of the Trinity
as seen by the Eastern Churches

Trinity Icon by Roublev

After the interrogation on the Son, on the Spirit and on the Father, the Pope invites the faithful to meditate on the mystery of the Trinity, which is a mystery of love and communion. The Eastern Churches presented it always like this.

Since centuries, the Christian tradition has contemplated the mystery of Trinity in the famous Roublev’s Icon which portrays the three angels invited to table by Abraham. An icon is worth ten thousand words, says a Chinese proverb.

The truth of it is found in the showing of hospitality, as Louis Massignon used to say. In inviting the poor to our table, it is Christ that we actually receive. Roublev’s Icon of the Trinity, which illustrates a scene of hospitality, presents in an original fashion, an intuitive approach to the mystery of the paternity of God. Sometimes, the artists more than the theologians have clearer flashes of intuition. Art is capable of putting into music a unique note with unbeatable eloquence. And image is worth more than a thousand words. The matching of colours and the vivacity of the looks make of Roublev’s Icon more than just a piece of art which would illustrate the mystery of hospitality. The Icon introduces us to the threshold of the mystery of God.

Roublev is an artist of intense silence. After many years of meditation on the Bible, his world has been laden with symbols. The Bible records that Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent, under the Oak of Mamre. He saw three men passing and he prostrated himself in front of them and invited them to have a rest and take some food. "My Lord", he says in the singular, as if he had seen God in their covered faces. Augustine comments: "Tres vidit unum adoravit" (He saw three and adored one). The book of Genesis notes that they were the angels who had come to visit Abraham. God had made an arrangement through their intermediary with Abraham which would save Sodom if it had ten just men on account of whom Abraham pleaded for the city. Abraham, as a true Semite, receives his guest according to the norms of oriental customs. The Synagogal version of the Scripture comments "They looked as if they were eating". By contrast, the village neighbours, perverts and profligates as they were, thought only of violating the angels. A curious paradox of situation! However, there where evil abounds, grace abounds even more.

The three personages were accommodated, but they were for Abraham an only Lord. Very early, the Church saw in this scene, a prophetic announcement of the Trinity. Behind each of the three personages, Roublev has put a symbol which enables it to be identified. On the left, the House of the Father, at the centre a tree, where the cross transforms itself into a new tree of life, and on the right a rock from which gushed out the water in the desert prefiguring the gift of the Spirit. The dish offered by Abraham to his guests resembles the Paschal cup, which announces the Eucharistic cup. In fact, the Synagogal version situates the meeting of Abraham with his guest at Paschal time, hence Sara prepared the unleavened bread.

For Roublev, the meeting of Abraham with the three angels reveals God, his divine council where it elaborates the plan of salvation. The angel in the middle, associated with the tree, symbolises Christ, the true fruit of the tree of life. His clothes, celestial blue and terrestrial brown, suggest the union of the divine with the human. His look of obedient love is turned towards the Father while he blesses the cup of his sacrifice which he takes up to drink in order to do the will of the Father. The stole which hangs on his right shoulder is a distinctive sign of his priesthood. His two fingers placed on the table signify his double nature.

The angel on the left embodies the Father above whom is the figure of the house. "There are many rooms in my Father’s house". The Father is the one who receives his children in his house. His cloak transparent of a luminous blue mixed with pallid gold expresses the inaccessible source of the divinity. It is out of love that the Father reveals himself and gives himself in the incarnation of his Son. The Father also blesses the cup, showing the communion of love which exists between him and the Son. To this double blessing corresponds that of the Church: "Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ". The Father looks at the angel on the right, whose green cloak anticipates the resurrection. The third angel symbolises the living Spirit in which the Father will resurrect Christ and will communicate life to the world. His blue clothes is the expression of wisdom, while his green cloak expressed the human nature evoked at rebirth. The angel which embodies the power of God expresses also his unchangeable youthfulness. The living water of the Spirit which gushed out from the rock is capable of renewing the world. The angel points the finger beside the cup, because it is by the power of the Spirit that the wine is transformed into the blood of Christ.

The three symbols which enable the angels to be identified re-echo equally in the Old Testament and constitute an important inclusion in the history of salvation. The house recalls the oracle of Nathan. It is not David who will build a house for God, but God who will build a house for him. The tree embodies Paradise at the middle of which was found the tree of life. Finally, the rock evokes the scene of the desert where Moses struck the rock with his rod. The message of the three symbols could be summarised thus: From Paradise to announce the coming of the Messiah. The central stage is that of the blessing of the Paschal cup.

A peaceful communication of love passes by the looks of the three personages. The circular look created a movement of unity among them. A subtle game of graph among themselves underlines the fact that this harmony consists in the divine communion which reflects the hospitality of Abraham. Furthermore, the looks express the self-emptying of God who reveals himself. All the Trinity is self-emptying: the Father gives himself to his Son, the Son humbles himself and the Spirit is the humility of God.

On the table, under the Eucharistic cup, a little rectangle symbolises the world with its four corners, the world that cannot subsist without the sacrifice of the lamb. Without the Paschal, the suffering of the world is absurd. The blood of the lamb takes away the sin of the world. The space of the table left free by the angels sidesteps the foot of a cup. It is easy to continue to trace the cup which rejoins the shoulders of the angel on the right and of the angel on the left. It is as if a big cup, bounded by the angels on the right and left, drew itself at the centre of that table. The cup of blessing is given to men because the son has drunk the cup of the will of the Father. Humanity is invited to drink the wine of the feast, to accept God’s hospitality.

The message of the Icon is clear: In God the self is a total gift, the personality pours out eternally as a clear look towards the other or as a pure relation to the other. The Father is only a loving look towards the Son, the Son is only an obedient look turned towards the Father and the Holy Spirit is only a breadth of love between the Father and the Son. In God the personality reveals itself as a power of liberation of self. God is completely personal. His nature passes in the relations among the divines, without any possibility of falling back into the possessive sphere which is capable of arousing the least complacency in self. All his being is gift, love and selflessness. It is in the self-emptying that the transcendence of God becomes manifest.

The Jewish tradition underlined the fact that Abraham was rewarded for his gesture of hospitality. Because it is said: "Look for water and wash your feet". God will give the sons of Abraham water to drink when they will be thirsty in the desert for forty years. The Synagogal version went as far as saying that Abraham himself washes the feet of his guests, anticipating thereby the prophetic aspect of the gesture of Jesus before his death. Because Abraham had said: "I am going to look for bread", God will give the Manna to his children. Because he took a calf to prepare and offer to his guests, God will nourish his children with quails in the desert. This reward will be prolonged on the earth until the eschatological times. God will bring out a source from Jerusalem and it will nourish his people just as a father nourishes his children. In other words, the visit of the three angels no longer belongs to time, but it opens a dimension of eternity.

The better reward, however, was reserved to Sara who was absent from the table. God reveals to Sara and to Abraham that even at their old age, a son would be given to them, the chief of a descendant more numerous than the stars of heaven. God could not forget his agreement with Abraham and his descendant. Nothing is impossible before God. The oracle of Nathan would find its realisation .

The function of the image is to introduce reflection and meditation into the world. The contemplation of the Roublev’s Icon of the Trinity indicates the path to follow in deepening the mystery of the Father which is inseparable from that of the Son and of the Spirit. It is the Old Testament that communicates the first announcement of the mystery of the Father. Its Jewish reading enables one to verify how Jesus himself and the Evangelists have read the word of God. For Jesus remained anchored in the tradition of his people. It is the heritage of the great monotheistic tradition which had celebrated the paternity of God. The exegesis made by Jesus himself carries the great novelty: "I and the Father are one". It is Christ who can successfully reveal the secrets of the paternity of God. Finally, since the mystery of Christ is prolonged by the Spirit in the Church, it would be necessary to examine the Fathers of the Church, particularly, their commentaries of the prayer of the Lord. Thus, we retrieve the serene circulation of love characterising Roublev’s Icon which envelops the whole history of the Church. The tenderness of the Father and his ineffable proximity embracing the whole earth continue even today, to give the Eucharistic Manna and the water of the Spirit. The suffering of God expressed in the look of the three personages, takes its origin from love. It is love that has caused the suffering.

The contemplation of the icon of the Trinity is therefore, transformed into a meditation on the whole history of salvation. It finds here its completion in the mystery of the Father, of the Son and the Spirit. Human adventure is not the outcome of haphazard arrangement. It is orientated by love towards the Trinitarian communion.

"Three: he who loves, he who is loved, the Love"
Saint Augustine

Frédéric Manns



Created / Updated Tuesday, March 07, 2000 at 18:36:12