The Hospitality of Abraham and Rublev’s Trinity

A traditional rendering of the Hospitality of Abraham icon

The Hospitality of Abraham is an icon that refers to the event detailed in Gen 18, when three men appeared at Abraham’s tent next to the Oaks of Mamre near Hebron. Abraham provided hospitality to these three men who had suddenly appeared and acted in unison, speaking as one. When they had been given a meal, the three men promised Abraham that he and his wife Sarah would have a child within a year. It was then that Abraham and Sarah realized that they had entertained angels without knowing it and had heard the will of God. The early Church quickly recognized that this event was an early revelation of the Trinity. In earlier icons of the Hospitality, this event was depicted with the three angels grouped around the table, enjoying the meal given them by Abraham and Sarah, who stand beside them and on either side. The table (resembling an altar) bears many vessels, some of which are clearly vessels used during the Divine Liturgy.   Two oaks lean in and Abraham’s tent (portrayed as a building) can be seen in the distance. There is even sometimes included a slave killing a fattened calf for the table. The theme of the icon is that of hospitality, by which we may be entertaining angels. There is also a foreshadowing of the Eucharist present.

St. Andrei Rublev’s Hospitality of Abraham (Trinity)

Yet iconography is open to innovations and creativity. A 15th century Russian iconographer and monk named St. Andrei Rublev did just this, masterfully shifting the focus of the hospitality icon and making his version the most famous icon in the world. Because of this accomplishment, he is numbered amongst the greatest of Russian theologians. Rublev’s means of accomplishing this came by way of drastically simplifying the icon, leaving only the angels, the altar with a single chalice; and in the background only a house, a tree, and a rock. By getting rid of the many narrative elements, Rublev shifted the focus to the three angels and their interaction with one another, exploring the dialogue of love within the Holy Trinity.

This icon however, has suffered quite a bit of damage. All icons at that time were coated with a special oil to help preserve the paint. Over time, the oil blackened, leaving the image barely distinguishable. Over time different iconographers painted over it in order to renew the image for others to see, following the shapes and patterns that they could still discern. This distorted the image and left some things lost. In the early 1900’s however, there was an effort to restore the icon to its original composition, removing the extra layers of paint given by other iconographers so that we have the icon we know today. There was quite a bit of damage- the gold leaf for the background had been peeled away, there are cracks in the green at the angels’ feet and the colors have faded a bit. But what is left is truly astounding.

There has been a lot of debate about which angel represents which Person of the Holy Trinity, but I think that the three angels sit from left to right in their traditional doxological order- the Father is represented on the left, the Son is represented in the middle, and the Holy Spirit is represented on the right (from this point on I will reference the angels as the Persons they represent rather than continuing to reuse the phrase “the angel that represents” with the understanding that this is not an actual depiction of the Holy Trinity, which would be heresy). It is my hope that this reading of the icon will help make this designation clear.

Christ and the Son Rublev ComparisonEach Person wears blue signifying heaven, from which they come. All are identical and are shown to be neither male nor female. They all hold staffs, which symbolize their authority. All of their heads are inclined to one another, none holding any posture of dominance of authority over the others, keeping with the teaching that the members of the Holy Trinity are coequal in majesty and glory. The Father wears a gold robe over his blue inner garment, showing his glory as the Origin of the Godhead. The Son wears the garments that Christ is traditionally depicted in: the red robe and the blue himation. There is even a gold band on his arm near his shoulder, typical of icons of Christ, indicating that he is a priest who offers sacrifice. The Holy Spirit wears green, symbolizing life and regeneration. This calls to mind the psalmist, who wrote, “When you send forth your Spirit they are created; and you renew the face of the earth” (Ps 104:30). Behind the Father is a large building with several windows. This is the “Father’s house” where “there are many rooms” (Jn 14:3). This is our hope and desire of all our lives. Behind the Son is a tree, recalling the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden and the New Tree of Life- the Cross- prepared for Jesus. Behind the Holy Spirit is a large rock that was likely represented by Rublev as cracked- symbolizing Christ from whose open side pours forth the life giving streams of the Holy Spirit.

The best way to understand this icon then is by giving it a new name- the Johannine Pentecost. The Johannine Pentecost comes from Jesus’ Farewell Discourse (Jn 13-17), when he promises the Holy Spirit after his death: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (Jn 16:7). We can therefore see that the circular movement so apparent in this icon comes from the Son. He is ready to return to the Father (Jn 17) bows to the Father and looks with entreatingly while pointing at the chalice in front of him- the chalice of his suffering and death that he must drink (Mt 26:39, Mk 14:36, Lk 22:42). Yet at the same time he points beyond the chalice to the Holy Spirit. The Son’s right hand was originally closed, with only the index finger extended- a gesture of pointing rather than of blessing. The second finger was added by a later iconographer who likely found this detail incomprehensible. Unfortunately, the restorers did not undo this addition, leaving the gesture significantly changed as a blessing rather than referring. But the intention of Rublev is clear- the focal point of the icon is not the Son, but the Holy Spirit.

The Father, who always hears the Son (Jn 11:42), heeds his request: his hand is shown giving his blessing and he directs his gaze to the Holy Spirit, who bows his head and lowers his hand in assent. Yet the circle remains open- leaving room for us. The Holy Spirit’s gesture of assent is to bring us into the divine life of the Trinity by bringing us in faith to the Son, who shows us the Father. We thus see in this icon the activity of the Persons of the Trinity that have been recorded by Salvation history- the going from the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit and again in the Holy Spirit returning to the Father through the Son.

Besides the Son’s, the Holy Spirit’s hand is the only other hand on the table, near to the chalice of Christ’s suffering by which the Holy Spirit will be given to the world when Jesus “gives up the ghost” (Jn 19:30 DR). It is also the Holy Spirit who is invoked in both the Mass and the Divine Liturgy to change the elements of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Lord. This brings us to the next point- the Eucharistic imagery in this icon.

The table that they are set around, as already mentioned, is clearly an altar: the chalice rests on the top and the box on the front is traditionally the drawer in where the relics of the martyrs were kept in the church. The chalice contains a bloody lamb and represents Christ’s sacrifice. It sits near the edge of the altar, inviting us to come and partake in their intimate communion in the space that they have left empty for us. We see this image of the chalice enlarged in the negative space between the Father and the Holy Spirt. Sitting in the center of this larger chalice, reminiscent of the smaller one below, is the Son. The message is clear- we partake of the life of the Trinity, we return to the Father in the Spirit through the Son- when we receive the Eucharist.

We can now see Rublev’s remarkable achievement. In writing this icon, St. Andrei has given us, for the first time, a compelling icon that accurately portrays the doctrine and life of the Trinity by showing us, in keeping with the traditions and laws of Iconography, the three divine hypostases (persons) undivided yet unique within the one ousia (substance). His accomplishment is so stunning and impossible to attribute to merely human ingenuity that we should not find it surprising that the theologian and philosopher Pavel Florensky once said, “Rublev’s Trinity exists; therefore God exists.”

For unto Thee is due all glory, honour, and worship: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

-From the Divine Liturgy

To see all of my posts on Iconography, click here.

1 Comment

Filed under Christology, Iconography, Saints, Scripture, Trinity

One response to “The Hospitality of Abraham and Rublev’s Trinity

  1. Lowell O'Grady

    Will you be adding future links on your overall website to St. Pope John Paul II’ Theology of the Body that relates Marriage to the Trinity?

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