Thinking about the Trinity, sermon preparation for Choral Evensong on Trinity Sunday...
It is so familiar and it is so loved. Rublev's icon of the Trinity is a representation of a subject treated by many painters of icons, 'The Hospitality of Abraham'. The subject is based upon Genesis 18 where three angels visit Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. This icon evolved as Christians came to see in this visitation a foreshadowing of the Trinity: three angelic persons speaking and acting as one; three 'hypostases' but one substance.
Rublev's icon only gestures toward the background narrative: he leaves Abraham and Sarah out and we glimpse only a hint of a dwelling and a single tree. All the focus is upon the three figures and we are invited to 'read' them.
The convention is that we read the icon from left to right but the central figure is dressed in bolder colours and reveals an under-tunic with a stripe - which is how Christ is most frequently represented in Eastern Christian art. The emphasis in the icon seems to be the direction of our attention toward Jesus Christ, the incarnate son; the implication that the Son is pivotal to our understanding of the Trinity. While his hand hovers over the chalice on the table, the inclination of his head and the direction of his eyes turn us toward the figure on our left and it seems that there is a natural tendency to then circle toward the figure on the right whose posture again directs our attention back to the figure on the left.
The movement in the icon, if icons can be said to move, is circular: each figure directs us to the other. Our eyes have no place to rest. No one figure can be engaged with. There is no full face contact with any one figure; each figure leads us to the other. Inevitably this calls to mind John's gospel – with Jesus always moving toward the Father and the great work of love endlessly circling from one to the other: Father, Son, and Spirit. This images the doctrine of the Trinity superbly.
But there is more – there is a place for us! I realize that this image of the Trinity has a vacant space at the table, the empty space from where I am watching; this is the space inviting me to participate in the circle; drawing me to live within this divine life. This icon does not just show me a truth about the doctrine of the Trinity – it invites me to live that truth.