Rublev's Iconographic Theology  

Posted by Joe Rawls

For today's commemoration of St Andrei Rublev (recently added to the calendar of the Episcopal Church) we turn to Hieromonk Gabriel Bunge's The Rublev Trinity (St Vladimir's Seminary Press 2007).  Fr Bunge, a native of Cologne, Germany, entered the Benedictine monastery of Chevetogne in 1962.  Chevetogne is a "dual-rite" institution, meaning that it houses two distinct monastic communities, one adhering to western patterns of worship and spiritual practices, the other to eastern Christian customs.  Fr Bunge began to live  as a hermit in Switzerland in 1980 and in 2010 he was received into the Russian Orthodox Church. 

The book deals with the icon from a variety of perspectives; the quote below (pp 86-87) shows how it artistically expresses a particular form of trinitarian theology.


Through his master, Feofan Grek, Rublev had been entrusted with the older christological type.  The main characteristic of this type is that the central angel. identified by a variety of attributes as Christ, the Son, always completely dominates the picture.  He faces the beholder, who looks directly towards him, the other angels being simply accompanying figures, who are often depicted as smaller.  Regardless of the title of the icon, we are formally dealing with an icon of Christ, a distant echo of the early Christian christological interpretation of Gen 18.

In the case of the Greek icons, several of which existed in Russia at all periods, Rublev was, moreover, aware of a more recent, more formally Trinitarian type.  Here, the three angels are as similar one to another as possible.  Attitude, gesture, and posture of the angels are now very marked and allow one to recognize relationships of interaction.  This is achieved mainly through the abandonment of the frontal view, even though the central angel still looks directly at the beholder.  While the christological type retains the biblical background (house, tree, and so on), the Trinitarian type often replaces this with a richly developed architectural setting. 

If one compares Rublev's Troitsa with its predecessors, then it becomes immediately apparent that it reproduces simply neither the one nor the other type.  The form of composition is essentially that of the Trinitarian type, with these striking modifications: 

  • The central angel no longer looks at the beholder but at the angel on the left.  Because the gaze of the angel on the left and that of the angel on the right cross one another, the center of gravity moves from the central angel to the one on the left.
  • This impression is strengthened because the angels at each side are of the same size as the one in the middle.  This distinguishes Rublev's Troitsa, too, from the icons that immediately preceeded it in the Trinity Monastery.
  • From the christological type, Rublev gives the angel in the middle the clothing characteristic of Christ and adds an unusual feature:  the golden clavus (sewn on stripe).  Moreover, he makes the clothing of the other two angels unique and not interchangeable.
  • The gestures of the three angels are essentially those of the Trinitarian type, yet with striking modifications.  Originally, the play of the hands was motivated by the objects on the table.  The central angel pointed to the great chalice in the middle of the table; the angel on the left blessed the chalice-bowl standing before him; and the angel on the right stretched out hands towards what was in the bowl standing before him or towards a piece of bread on the table.  These gestures appear in the icons that immediately precede Rublev's Troitsa.  However, in Rublev's icon the table is so small and the figures are so close together that there is no room for any other vessels except for the great chalice in the middle of the table.  The table is bare apart from this bowl.  Over this bowl...the right hand of the central angel points.  The angel on the left raises his right hand both pointing and blessing in the direction of the angel on the right, who for his part drops his hand to the table, a movement that reflects the inclination of his head.  
  • Although still in keeping with traditional elements, these gestures clearly express another meaning.  They no longer relate to the food but, in an individual way, to the persons.  In short, Rublev has not simply re-created another icon with christological interpretation:  one individual form with two companions; neither has he created what could be considered a standard Trinitarian icon, that is, three equal, interchangeable forms.  Rather, he has shown three non-interchangeable persons.

Aquinas on Theosis  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Thomas Aquinas, whose feastday was recently added to the Episcopal Church sanctoral, is stereotypically regarded as a dry, quintessentially cerebral theologian, with nary a mystical bone in his body.  That this is a gross oversimplification is shown by a number of passages in his works referring to theosis or deification, which we stereotypically pigeonhole as an Eastern Christian concept.  This aspect of his thought is addressed by Daniel A Keating in his Deification and Grace (Sapientia Press 2007). 

A hat tip to the site Joe Versus the Volcano.

Commentary on Ephesians (3:20)
The human mind and will  could never imagine, understand or  ask that God become  man, and that man become God and a sharer in the divine nature.  But he has done this in us by his power, and it was accomplished in the Incarnation of his Son.

Commentary on John (15:9)
The Son did not love the disciples in either of these ways.  For he did not love them to the point of their being gods by nature, nor to the point that they would be united to God so as to form one person with him.  But he did love them up to a similar point:  he loved them to the extent that they would be gods by their participation in grace--"I say, 'You are gods'" (Ps 82:6).

Summa Theologiae (I-II, q. 112, a. 1)
Nothing can act beyond its species, since the cause must always be more powerful than its effect.  Now the gift of grace surpasses every capability of created nature, since it is nothing short of a partaking of the divine nature, which exceeds every other nature.  And thus it is impossible that any creature should cause grace.  For it is as necessary that God alone should deify, bestowing a partaking of the divine nature by a participated likeness as it is impossible that anything save fire should enkindle.

Back to the Monastic Future  

Posted by Joe Rawls

At the very end of Atheist Delusions:  The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies (Yale 2009) the philosopher and theologian David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, speculates on a possible future scenario of monasticism vis-a-vis the declining Western church.  But read the rest of the book too.


[The birth of monasticism in the fourth century] might be viewed as the final revolutionary movement within ancient Christianity:  its rebellion against its own success, its preservation of its most precious and unadulterated spiritual aspirations against its own temporal power (perhaps in preparation for the day when that power would be no more), and its repudiation of any value born from the fallen  world that might displace love from the center of the Christian faith.

It may be that ultimately this will again become the proper model of Christianity in the late modern West.  I am not speaking, of course, of some great new monastic movement.  I mean only that, in the lands where the old Christendom has mostly faded away, the life of those ancient  men and women who devoted themselves to the science of charity, in willing exile from the world of social prestige and power, may perhaps again become the model that Christians will find themselves compelled to emulate.  Christian conscience once sought out the desert as a shelter from the empire, where those who believed could strive to cultivate the pure eye (that could see all things as gifts of God) and the pure heart (that could receive all persons with a generous love); now a very great deal of Western culture threatens to become something of a desert for believers.  In other parts of the world, perhaps, a new Christendom may be in the process of being born--in Africa and Asia, and in another way in Latin America--but what will come of that is impossible to say.  We live in an age of such cultural, demographic, ideological, and economic fluidity that what seems like a great movement now may surprise us in only a very few years by its transience.  Innumerable forces are vying for the future, and Christianity may prove considerably weaker than its rivals.  This should certainly be no cause of despair for Christians, however, since they must believe their faith to be not only a cultural logic but a cosmic truth, which can never finally be defeated.  Even so, it may be the case that Christians who live amid the ruins of the old Christendom--perhaps dwelling on the far-flung frontiers of a Christian civilization taking shape in other lands--will have to learn to continue the mission of their ancient revolution in the desert, to which faith has often found it necessary, at various times, to retreat.

Wright on the Birth Narratives  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

A good read for this tail-end of the Christmas season is this essay by NT Wright dealing with the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke.  "Suspending Scepticism:  History and the Virgin Birth" examines the interplay between the worldview of the gospels and that of the post-Enlightenment West.  Wright deftly places the virginal conception of Jesus in proper context, certainly not denying it but subordinating it to his bodily resurrection and divinity.


...Some things must be put in a "suspense account"--in Marcus Borg's happy phrase--while others are sorted out.  The birth narratives have no impact on my reconstruction of Jesus' public agendas and his mind-set as he went to the cross.

...Because I am convinced that the creator God raised Jesus bodily from the dead, and because I am convinced that Jesus was and is the embodiment of this worldview is forced to reactivate various things in the suspense account, the birth narratives included.

There are indeed more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in post-Enlightenment metaphysics.  The "closed continuum" of cause and effect is a modernist myth.  The God who does not "intervene" from outside but is always present and active within the world, sometimes shockingly, may well have been thus active on this occasion.

...There is no pre-Christian Jewish tradition suggesting that the messiah would be born of a virgin...

The only possible parallels are pagan ones, and these fiercely Jewish stories have certainly not been modeled on them.  Luke at least must have known that telling this story ran the risk of making Jesus out to be a pagan demigod.  Why, for the sake of an exalted metaphor, would they take this risk--unless they at least believed the stories to be literally true?