Andrei Rublev's Trinity Icon  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Andrei Rublev (ca 1360-1430) is the most famous Russian iconographer and his most famous work by far is his depiction of the Trinity.  Art historian Alexander Boguslawski comments on some theological implications of this great icon. 


Very few artists before Rublev dared to eliminate all the narrative elements from the story, leaving only the three angels; usually those who did so had to deal with limited space. The results of their efforts did not find general acceptance or many copyists. Rublev was the first to make a conscious decision not to include in his composition the figures of Abraham and Sarah because he did not set out to illustrate the story of the hospitality of Abraham, as did many painters before him, but to convey through his image the idea of the unity and indivisibility of the three persons of the Trinity.  

The doctrine of the Trinity, difficult to explain logically, found various interpretations. Some thought that the Trinity consisted of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Others believed that it was just God and two angels. In the 14th and 15th-century Russia, in the period of many heretical movements, the idea of the Trinity was often questioned. The heretics in Novgorod claimed that it is not permissible to paint the Trinity on icons because Abraham did not see the Trinity but only God and two angels. Other heretics rejected the idea of the three hypostases of God altogether. The church fought the heresies with all the means it had -- usually with polemical treaties, but also with force, if necessary.  Russian icon painters before Rublev subscribed to the same point of view that Abraham was visited by God (in Christ's image) and two angels. Hence, Christ was represented in icons of the Trinity as the middle angel and was symbolically set apart either by a halo with a cross, by a considerable enlargement of his figure, by widely spread wings or by a scroll in His hand.
Trinity Icons. From left to right: Holy Trinity, a part of a quadripartite icon from Novgorod (first half of the 15th c.), Holy Trinity (Hospitality of Abraham), Novgorod School (middle of the 16th c.), Holy Trinity, Pskov School (15th c.).  

In Rublev's icon for the first time all the angels are equally important. Only this icon truly conforms to the Orthodox idea of the Trinity. But Rublev's genius allows the painter to go beyond the constraints of theological theme. His icon is a special kind of challenge to the antitrinitarians -- instead of forcing them to accept the dogma, Rublev softly and gently tries to bring them to the dogmatic understanding of the icon's meaning.  

All scholars agree that the three hypostases of the Trinity are represented in Rublev's icon. But there are greatly differing views as to which angel represents which hypostasis. Many see Christ in the middle angel and God the Father in the left. Others see God the Father in the middle angel, and Christ in the left one. The middle angel occupies a special place in the icon: it is set apart not only by its central position, but also by a "regal" turn of its head towards the left angel, and by pointing with its hand towards the cup on the table. Both the turn of the head and the gesture are important clues to the hidden meaning of the icon. Equal among equals, the middle angel has such expressive power that one hesitates not to see in it a symbolic representation of God the Father. On the other hand one cannot fail to notice that the left angel is also essential: two other angels lower their heads towards it and seem to address it. Therefore, if we assume that the left angel is God the Father, the middle angel, dressed in the clothes customarily used in compositions depicting the second person of the Trinity (a blue himation and a crimson tunic), should represent Christ. This amazing and perhaps purposeful encoding of these two persons of the Trinity by Rublev does not give us a clear clue for a single interpretation. Whatever the case, the icon shows a dialogue between two angels: The Father turns to His Son and explains the necessity of His sacrifice, and the Son answers by agreeing with His Father's wish.  

Neither of these interpretations impacts the interpretation of the Trinity as triune God and as a representation of the sacrament of the Eucharist. The cup on the table is an eucharistic symbol. In the cup we see the head of the calf which Abraham used for the feast. The church interprets this calf as a prototype of the New Testament Lamb, and thus the cup acquires its Eucharistic meaning. The left and the middle angels bless the cup: The Father blesses His Son on his Deed, on His death on the cross for the sake of man's salvation, and the Son, blessing the cup, expresses his readiness to sacrifice Himself. The third angel does not bless the cup and does not participate in the conversation, but is present as a Comforter, the undying, a symbol of eternal youth and the upcoming Resurrection.

The Mystical Significance of Jesus' Baptism  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Baptism is of course a rite of passage marking one's entry into the Church, but there is much more to it than that.  Theologian Steve Turley succinctly sums up the Eastern Orthodox view of the baptism of Jesus, seen as the inauguration of the Christian sacrament but also as a manifestation or "theophany" of God's presence.
For centuries, the Orthodox Church has appropriated January 6th as the occasion to remember and commemorate the baptism of Christ by John in the Jordan River. The celebration is known as “Theophany,” which stems from the Ancient Greek term for the “appearance of a god.” In passages such as Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, and Luke 3:21-22, Jesus’ baptism marks the first explicit manifestation of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

For the early church, it was highly significant that such a divine manifestation was associated with the rite of baptism, for such an association linked together the true nature of the Creator with the true nature of creation. In other words, the revelation of God as Trinity was inextricably linked with the revelation of God as Creator and Redeemer of the cosmos. 

Kilian McDonnell’s study on the cosmic dimensions of Jesus’ own baptism in early Christian thought observes that it was virtually the unanimous witness of these early authors that Christ was baptized not for his own sins but for the purification of the cosmos.[1] Ignatius of Antioch, who was a student of the Apostle John, wrote that Jesus was baptized in order to sanctify the waters of the world and thereby fulfill all righteousness (Eph. 18:2; Smyrn. 1:1). Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) argued that the anointing of the Spirit on Jesus served to establish Jesus’ identity as messianic king and thus the incarnation of the primordial Logos through whom all things were made (Dial. 88). Irenaeus’ Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching understands Jesus’ baptism as the intermediary by which the Father anoints the material cosmos with the Spirit, an act that revealed in time and space the pre-temporal anointing of Christ by the Father before creation.[2]  

The site of the Jordan River amplified the cosmic significance of Christ’s baptism. In such Jewish extra-canonical texts such as the Life of Adam and Eve, the Jordan River was the river that flowed in the Garden of Eden. Christians picked up this tradition and applied it to the baptism of Christ. Hippolytus of Rome (170-235 AD) associated the Jordan as a cosmic river flowing back and forth into the Paradise restored in Christ, and Gregory of Nyssa (335-394 AD) envisioned all baptismal waters as cosmic extensions of the Jordan, encompassing the whole world, with its source in Paradise. 

The iconography of Theophany testifies to the paradisical significance of the Jordan. In the Jewish text, the Life of Adam and Eve, Adam, having been expelled from Paradise, stands neck-deep in the Jordan for forty days as an act of repentance for his sin. In the icon, Christ stands in the Jordan either naked or with scant clothing, thus restoratively identifying himself with the original nakedness of Adam in Paradise.

For these early Christians, the sanctifying effect Jesus had on the waters of the river Jordan renders worthy all water for baptism, such that baptized Christians are in fact participating in a proleptic manifestation of the new creation. Clement of Alexandria, after declaring Christ as head of all creation, wrote: “For this reason the Savior was baptized, though he had no need of it, in order to sanctify all the waters for those who would be regenerated” (A Selection from Prophetic Writings, 4, 5).[3] The Armenian Teaching of St. Gregory provides a particularly insightful appropriation of Christ’s baptism for the Christian. It is the role of the Spirit to order the cosmos, to change disorder into order. When Adam sinned, the Spirit abandoned not only Adam but the whole cosmos. Christ’s baptism, “by treading the waters with his own footstep, … sanctified them and made them purifying.” The restoration of the creation thus involves “the glory of adoption,” wherein the baptism of Jesus restores the Spirit to a new humanity indwelling a renewed created order. The initiate’s identity is derivative of Jesus’ identity as both are forged at the rejuvenation of creation. 

Theophany is therefore a feast day that celebrates the fact that the totality of the cosmos has been incorporated into the transformative life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The Triune Creator is redeeming both creature and creation in his own self-manifestation as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Theophany is thus a commemoration of the One through whom all things are made, and in whom all things are made new.

[1] The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan: The Trinitarian and Cosmic Order of Salvation (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1996), 24.
[2] McDonnell, Baptism of Jesus, 58.
[3] McDonnell, Baptism of Jesus, 55.