top of page

The Divine Harmony: Rublev’s Icon of The Trinity Explored

Trinity Sunday (June 4th in 2023) is always a puzzling day, as we grapple with the mystery of God as three persons.

Sometimes when thinking about mystery, images can help more than words.

And in that spirit I want to explore this beautiful icon, painted by a Russian artist called Andrey Rublev. He was a member of the Orthodox Church, and lived from 1360 to 1430.

But before we come to the painting, let's spend a moment thinking about icons.

An icon is not a painting in the sense we usually regard pieces of art. An icon is a window out of the apparent realities of everyday life into the realm of God. They are religious pictures that convey the inner spiritual meaning of their subject matter.

The icon painter sees his work as an act of prayer, every brush stroke being meditated over.

This icon is inspired by Genesis 18.1: ‘The Lord appeared to Abraham.’ But, wait, verse 2 says: ‘Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby’.

Three? Where did “three” come from?

Are these three angels? Or is this somehow a metaphor for the three persons of the Trinity?

In Rublev's understanding of the scene, it is both.

On one level, this picture shows three angels seated under Abraham's tree,

but on another, it is a visual expression of what the Trinity means. It answers questions about the nature of God and how we approach him.

The Scene

Three gold-winged figures are seated around a white table on which a golden, chalice-like bowl contains a minute roasted lamb.

Reading the picture from left to right, we see the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

In the background, a house can be seen top left, a tree in the centre, and a mountain in the upper right.

Rublev gives each person of the Trinity different clothing.

On the right, the Holy Spirit has a garment of the clear blue sky, wrapped over with a robe of a fragile green. So the Spirit of creation moves in sky and water, breathes in heaven and earth.

All living things owe life - and indeed, their existence - to the Spirit’s touch.

The Son has the deepest colours; a thick heavy garment of the reddish-brown of earth and a cloak of the blue of heaven. In his person, he unites heaven and earth.

The Father seems to wear all the colours in a kind of fabric that changes with the light, It seems transparent and mysterious in a way that cannot be described or confined in words.

And this is how it should be. No one has seen the Father, yet His presence fills the universe.

The wings of the angels or persons are gold. Their seats are gold. The chalice on the table is gold. All is perfect, precious, and worthy.

The light that shines around their heads is white, pure light. Gold is not enough to express the glory of God. Only light will express that fully.

The Movement

The Father looks forward, raising his hand in blessing to the Son. His gesture expresses a movement towards the Son.

This is my Son; listen to him...

The hand of the Son points on, around the circle, to the Spirit. In this simple array, we see the movement of the Trinity towards us. The Father sends the Son; the Son sends the Spirit. Life flows around the circle.

And we complete the circle. As the Father sends the Son and the Son sends the Holy Spirit,

we are invited and sent to complete the circle of the Godhead with our response.

The Symbols

There are three signs at the top of the picture, the hill, the tree, and the house. The Spirit leads us in ways we may not be aware of, up the hill of prayer. It may be steep and rocky, but the journeying God goes before us along the path.

It leads to Jesus, the Son of God—and it leads to a tree. In the heat of the day, a great tree spreads its shade. It is a place of security, a place of peace, a place where we begin to find out the possibilities of who we can be.

It stands above the Son and stands above the table where the lamb lies within the chalice. Because of the sacrifice, the Tree of Death has been transformed into a Tree of life.

And the tree is on the way to the house. Over the head of the Father is the house of the Father. It is the goal of our journey. It is the beginning and end of our lives.

Its roof is golden. Its door is always open for the traveller.

In my Father’s house are many rooms…

The Table

The table or altar lies at the centre of the picture. It is at once the place of Abraham's hospitality to the angels and God's place of hospitality to us.

That ambiguity lies at the heart of communion, at the heart of worship. As we open a sacred place for God to enter, for God to be welcomed, it becomes his place. It is we who are included; it is we who must 'take off our shoes' because of the holiness of the ground.

But in the centre of the circle, a sign of death.

The lamb is slain. The holy meal was brought to the table.

All points to this space, this mystery: within it, everything about God is expressed, his power, his glory, and above all, his love.

And it is expressed in such a way that we can reach it. The space at this table is on our side. We are invited to join the group at the table and receive the heart of their being for ourselves.

We are invited to enter the depth and intimacy of all represented here.

Come follow the Spirit up the hill of prayer.

Come, live in the shadow of the Son of God; rest yourself beneath his tree of life.

Come, journey to the home, prepared for you in the house of your Father.

The table is spread; the door is open. Come.

This devotion is a blog version of a sermon given at Newcomen Methodist Church on Trinity Sunday, June 4th 2023


bottom of page