Andrei Rublev’s Trinity icon returns to the Church

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On June 4, 2023, the icon of the Holy Trinity, painted by St Andrei Rublev, was brought to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

By Ekaterina Lugovaya

Speaking at the meeting of the Holy Synod on May 16, 2023, Patriarch Kirill spoke about how the decision had been made to transfer the icon to the Church.

The Primate of the Russian Church said that he had sent a letter to the head of the Presidential Administration, which, in particular, read: ‘As you know, the icon of the Holy Trinity, painted in the fifteenth century by the Venerable Andrei Rublev, is kept at the State Tretyakov Gallery. Till 1917 the icon belonged to the Holy Trinity-St Sergius Lavra and was situated in the iconostasis of the Holy Trinity Cathedral. This year the feast of the Holy Trinity falls on June 4. Taking into account the special historical and cultural value of this icon, I deem it proper this year to organise its transfer for the feast of the Holy Trinity from the Tretyakov Gallery to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow with the icon staying in this church for two weeks in order to provide access to it to a large number of believers. The Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation has no objections to moving the icon of the Holy Trinity to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour for the specified period.’

According to Patriarch Kirill, in response to this appeal ‘the President of the Russian Federation made a historic decision to return the icon of the Holy Trinity to the Russian Orthodox Church.’ The Primate added that ‘we could only dream that this relic would be returned to the Church so that our people could pray in front of it, asking for God’s blessing on both the country and the Church…’

Most researchers consider the date of Andrei Rublev’s birth to be about 1360, but it is conditional. The ‘Description of the Russian Saints’ reads that the venerable man died in 1430 ‘at a ripe old age.’ Considering that the ‘ripe old age’ came at seventy, the researchers got to 1360 by mathematical calculation. There is also an opinion that Rublev was born in the 1370s or the 1380s, that is why he was not mentioned in the sources prior to 1405. No information has survived on the icon-painter’s parents. Some researchers derive the nickname Rublev from the word ‘rubel’ (a tool for rolling leather) and believe that this may indicate Andrei Rublev’s origin from an ancient family of craftsmen. The birthplace of Andrei Rublev and the date of the beginning of his creative biography are unknown. The surviving information connects his name with Moscow or with the execution of Moscow’s orders. The time of the saint’s monastic tonsure is difficult to trace, but it probably was shortly before 1405. The Life of St Sergius and the later hagiographic tradition indicate that most likely Andrei’s monastic life was connected with Andronikov Monastery.

In the ‘Reply’ by the Venerable Joseph of Volotsk, the icon-painter Daniel, his friend and co-faster, is called Rublev’s ‘teacher’. Perhaps the Venerable Joseph meant spiritual discipleship here. The ‘Reply’ preserved the features of the spiritual appearance of Andrei, who through ‘great care about fasting and monastic life’ managed to ‘lift his mind and thoughts to the immaterial and Divine light.’ On the Church feasts, when they were not supposed to paint icons, Andrei and Daniel contemplated icons, ‘and, looking at them attentively, they would be filled with Divine joy and light.’

Andrei Rublev. Icon Trinity. Early 15th century

Icons painted by Rublev were extremely valued. According to the ‘Legend of the Holy Icon-Painters’, all of them were regarded as wonderworking. Among the connoisseurs and collectors of Rublev’s icons was the Venerable Joseph of Volotsk. The respect with which Andrei Rublev, ‘a man who surpasses everyone in his wisdom’, ‘pre-eminent among the icon-painters’, was held during his lifetime, soon after his repose grew into his veneration as a saint. In the sixteenth century images of Andrei Rublev appeared with a halo on miniatures.

The Life of St Sergius says that Andrei Rublev’s last work was frescoes of the Saviour’s Cathedral of Andronikov Monastery and the saint passed away at this monastery. However, the Life of the Venerable Nikon claims that Rublev’s last work was the painting of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, soon after which he reposed.

In 1988 at the Council of the Russian Church Andrei Rublev was canonised among the venerable fathers, and at the same time a service to him was composed. On April 3, 2001, the Holy Synod approved the Order of Andrei Rublev (3rd degree), conferred to icon-painters for merits in the sphere of church art.

Irina Yazykova, head of the Department of Christian Culture of the Biblical Theological Institute of St Andrew the Apostle (Moscow) and a teacher of the Kolomna Theological Seminary, believes that the ‘Trinity’ icon is one of the most mysterious. ‘When I began to study the theology of the icon (and I have always been interested not only in the artistic aspect, but also in the theological meaning hidden in the icon), the icon of the Trinity was, of course, in the focus of my attention. In this icon I discovered a fount of theology, saw in it prayer embodied in colours, a whole treatise on the Holy Trinity. Perhaps no one has spoken more deeply about the mystery of the Divine triunity than Andrei Rublev did,’ the art critic adds. She also explains that ‘the novelty of the icon is in the fact that Rublev focused all his attention on the three angels. Before him icon-painters had mainly depicted Abraham’s hospitality, described in chapter 18 of the Book of Genesis, when three angels came to Abraham’s house. And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground (Gen. 18:2). Based on the narrative of this chapter, it becomes clear that God Himself appeared to Abraham.

‘Though there is no consensus among the Holy Fathers or iconographers in the interpretation of this subject, some claimed that the Holy Trinity appeared to Abraham at that moment. And icon-painters depicted three angels in identical robes, pointing to their unity and equality to each other. Other theologians spoke about the appearance of God accompanied by two angels. Then one of them was depicted in Christ’s garments.

‘Andrei Rublev, omitting the everyday details – Sarah, Abraham and the servant slaughtering a calf, that is, everything that icon-painters used to paint before him – introduces us to the direct contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity Itself. In general, this icon is interesting because it is multifaceted, it can be “read” in different ways several times: as the appearance of Christ because the middle angel is depicted in the Saviour’s robes; it can also be read as an image of the Trinity – all the three angels are depicted with almost identical faces. But this is not an illustration of God. This icon, as in a theological treatise, reveals what the Holy Fathers called Three in One – one God in three Persons or Hypostases. The icon also reflects the liturgical aspect. The silhouettes of two angels sitting on either side form a chalice. And there is a chalice on the throne in the middle – a symbol of the Eucharist, the Sacrifice of Christ.’

According to the famous theologian Archpriest Pavel Velikanov, ‘you can stand for hours in front of the icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev. Isn’t this icon, with its unearthly harmony of colours and lines, the deep inner peace of angelic faces, a masterpiece of fine art?… But why exactly was this image destined to become a model of Orthodox teaching? Obviously, it is not just about the unsurpassed skill of the artist’s brush. Are there not enough masterpieces in the world? The icon-painter remarkably succeeded in touching a deep mystery – the mystery of God.’

The priest also draws attention to the fact that the icon of the Holy Trinity, painted by Andrei Rublev, is not only a masterpiece of fine art. The iconographer, according to Father Pavel, could reflect the deepest Christian truth in it: God is not only the Eternal Love of Three Persons. This love is addressed to man, calling him inside the Pre-eternal Council! This is what is expressed in the composition of the icon, in which the viewer feels as if he were inside a circle of Divine Faces turned to him. After all, the God in Whom Christians believe is not the Chief Overseer, much less the Great Avenger. ‘He is the Love that looks into your eyes – and waits for your answer.’

The story of the icon’s return to the Church is complicated: there are concerns about its safety on the part of the museum community. There is no doubt that the Church is no less interested in keeping the great relic safe. But the logic, which even in the period of persecution assumed that works of Christian art should be protected from believers, must be left in the past once and for all.

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