Saint Andrei Rublev lived in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, and is celebrated as Russia's greatest iconographer. Not much is known about his life, so in this episode we will contemplate and discuss his most important icon: the icon of the Holy Trinity. This icon depicts the three angelic visitors that Abraham hosts in Genesis 18, but it really points to the true nature of the trinitarian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is Prof Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate Saint Andrei Rublev
Saint Andrei Rublev lived around the late 14th and early 15th centuries, and is a celebrated Russian iconographer. Unforunately, not much is known about his life, other than a few small details, like a strong connection with Saint Sergius of Radonezh. Let us read from a brief biography of the saint from the website of the Orthodox Church of America:
Saint Andrew Rublev, Russia’s greatest iconographer, was born near Moscow sometime between 1360 and 1370. While still very young, he went to the Holy Trinity Monastery, and was profoundly impressed by Saint Sergius of Radonezh (September 25).
After the death of Saint Sergius in 1392, Saint Nikon (November 17) succeeded him as igumen. Saint Andrew became a novice in the monastery under Saint Nikon. Sometime before 1405 he moved to the Spaso-Andronikov Monastery founded by Saint Andronicus (June 13), with the blessing of Saint Nikon.There Saint Andrew received monastic tonsure and was taught iconography by Theophanes the Greek and the monk Daniel, Saint Andrew’s friend and fellow-ascetic.
Saint Andrew is first mentioned in the Chronicles in 1405, when he, Theophanes, and Prochorus painted the cathedral of the Annunciation. His next important project, which he undertook with the monk Daniel, was to paint the frescoes in the Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir in 1408.
Saint Nikon of Radonezh asked Saint Andrew and Daniel to paint the new church in the reconstructed monastery of the Holy Trinity, which had been destroyed by the Tatars in 1408. At this time Saint Andrew painted his most famous icon: the Holy Trinity (actually, the Hospitality of Abraham).
Saint Andrew fell asleep in the Lord between 1427-1430, and was buried in the Andronikov Monastery. He was over seventy years old at the time of his death. The monk Daniel, who died before Saint Andrew, appeared to his friend and urged him to join him in eternal blessedness.
St Andrei’s greatest work is his Holy Trinity icon, and indeed this is the only work that we know for sure is painted by him. (It is thought that he painted some other famous Russian icons of the time, but there is no solid evidence for those). Unfortunately, podcasts are now well-suited to describe art in the visual medium! If it is possible, I encourage you to pause the podcast right now and Google Rublev trinity, and take a few minutes to contemplate this wonderful icon. If it is possible, listen to the rest of this podcast episode with that icon in view (please don’t do this if you are driving or in a similarly unsafe situation!). It depicts a story in Genesis 18, where Abraham is visited by three angels and offers them hospitality, ignorant of their true nature. But it is really about the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Here is a text description of what is going on in the icon, from the British Association of Iconographers website:
WHAT WE SEE IN THIS ICON
The icon depicts the Holy Trinity by representing the Biblical scene of three men appearing to Abraham at the Oak of Mambre. To show they belong to the heavenly world, they are depicted as three winged angels, but the circumstances of their appearance are passed over in silence.
Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity
The cosmos is represented in the background by a mountain and tree – the tree of life – and Abraham’s house is seen, because the main focus lies not in the Biblical meaning but in its dogma, or theological teaching. Just before Rublev’s time the historical aspect of the event was more dominant, as Sarah was often depicted serving the calf, objects on the table, and Abraham entertaining the guests or serving them with Sarah. But in Rublev’s icon the treatment is reduced to the essentials, because it excludes these other details. The visiting angels sit in quiet conversation, the table becomes an altar with only the Eucharistic cup on it, and the oak tree and house become symbols. Geometrical structure, especially circles, creates a unity allowing for representing the Trinity as a movement of unity and love.
According to Ouspensky, the angels are grouped in order of symbols of faith, from left to right, God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. The angel on the left wears a pale blue cloak with brown and blue-green highlights. He represents the Father blessing the chalice in a gesture indicating His will for the sorrowful mission of His Son as assigned to Him. The centre angel wears a purple undergarment and blue cloak, the customary colours used for depicting Christ on icons. His priestly function is symbolised by His wearing a stole and blessing the cup in a restrained gesture, indicating acceptance in humility and obedience to offer Himself as a sacrifice. The right hand angel is clothed in the principle colour of green, which Dioynsius, the Areopagite says signifies ‘youth, fullness of powers’ – thus suggesting properties of the Holy spirit. The elongated bodies of the angels are 14 times the head (instead of the normal 8). There is an invisible circle enfolding the three angels, and, wherever one looks, echoes of circles can be seen. The overall colour in this icon, with its tranquil blues and green, overlain with paler tones, combined with soft ivory white producing a transparent effect, shows forth harmony, unity and concord. This, in turn, is echoed in the forms and lines in the icon. As Ouspensky says, This icon, with its inexhaustible content, its harmonious composition, majestic calm, figures of the angels conversing in silence and the light joyous summer colours, could only be the creation of a man who has stilled, in his soul, all agitation and doubt, and has been illuminated by the light and knowledge of God.’
Let us read from a wonderful reflection by Prof. Dr. Johannes Reimer. Dr. Johannes Reimer is Professor of Missions Studies and Intercultural Theology at the Ewersbach University of Applied Arts in Germany and the University of South Africa. This is from a journal article he wrote in 2008, in the journal Acta Theologica, titled
THE SPIRITUALITY OF ANDREI
RUBLEV’S ICON OF THE HOLY
What is the theology behind the icon? What did Rublev want to transmit to the
visitors of the cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Radonez? What is his message?
There are a number of possible answers to these questions.
First, Rublev seems to express the unity, the divine oneness, of the Trinity.
Both the composition of his icon, as well as the conversational relationship of
the three angels as its main images strongly support this thought, as indicated
previously. The oneness is a qualitative unity. It describes the nature of God in
missionary terms. Uspenski formulates:
If the bowing of heads, expressed by the two angels towards the third unite
the three, then the hands pointing to the cup on the white throne-like
table with an Eucharistic cup filled with the head of an animal offering,
point to the centre of the icon (Uspenski in Raushenbach).
This centre is the Eucharist, God’s salvific act in Christ, the ultimate target
of the missio Dei. The unity of God is therefore qualified by the unity in God’s
mission. In fact, the mission seems to determine the nature of the Trinity.
Secondly, Rublev emphasises the eternity of the Trinity by freezing all motions
in his painting. By doing so, he seems to stop time itself. Time is taken out of the
icon. What is left lies beyond time and space — eternity. His icon speaks, but
instead of words and stories, it uses meditation, emotions, as if the author wanted
to say, “You cannot describe God’s divine nature, his everlasting love and his
self-denial in mission in words. Love must be experienced. Verbal debates lead
nowhere. God must enter the inner room of our heart — intellectuality alone,
reflection in time and space, do not enter his nature. Instead, they may well
hinder access to the most secret, the most intimate — God himself in His Trinity.”
One is clearly reminded of God’s prohibition against making any likeness
of him (Ex. 20:4). It is fascinating to see an image of God that expresses God’s
law prohibiting such an image. Rublev does not offer an idol; he leads us to a
deep contemplation of the unseen.
Thirdly, the unity of the Trinity is specified by some differentiations between
the three images. Rublev does so by painting the dress of the angels differ
ently. Their attire seems to indicate different responsibilities, different offices. They
are one, their mission is one, centred on salvation, but their tasks are different.
As indicated by the symbols above their heads, they each play a different role,
yet without being separated from each other. They “promote” each other. Their
acts seem to draw them into their eternal oneness. The positions of their bodies
have the same effect. The three all sit differently, but again the bodies seem to
enter a perichoretical11 movement, a round dance, a rotation which, if speeded
up, will make it impossible to distinguish who is who in the picture. The ob
server following the direction in which the bodies point will rotate his/her head
and the ensuing meditation will produce a dancing effect. Rublev sees the dif
ferences in the hypostasis of the Trinity. But he does so as John of Damascus
(675-749) once suggested — perichoretically. It is impossible to separate one
person of the Trinity from the others. They naturally belong together. There is
just one being. The three are one. All polytheistic tendencies are removed.
Rublev is, in his icon, absolutely monotheistic.
Fourthly, at the centre of the icon is Christ. He reveals God to humankind.
It is his salvific act which allows the observer to meditate on the nature of the
Trinity. The quiet conversation, the presupposed dialogue between the three
persons, seems to rotate around the table with the cup of offering. The conver
sation, frozen in time, indicates an eternal, never-ending dialogue. The Word is
not only spoken by God, God himself is this Word. His nature is focused in this
dialogue. Rublev wants his observer to see this. The attention of the observer
is drawn to this table. The angels to the left and right seem to lift the table with
their bodies that are “painted into” the table. The composition indicates that the
two offer up the third. It is him whom they want to be seen. Rublev seems to
indicate what the Prologue of the Gospel of John expresses clearly in unfor
In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was with God and
the Word was God. All things came into being by Him; and apart from
Him nothing came into being. In Him was life and the life was the light of
men … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld
his glory (Jn 1:1-2:14).
Fifthly, the colours of the icon are consciously chosen. Rublev uses a mix
ture of deep blue and dark red in a combination which allows him to create the
impression of light shining out of the icon. According to later interpretations,
the intentions of an icon were to create a place of divine meditation which would
allow the observer to enter the divine light of God in order to experience an inner
transformation. The idea behind this comes from the hesychastic movement
in Greek monastic circles, around the monk of Athos and later archbishop,
Gregory Palamas, the founder of Hesychasm.12
Gregory and his followers believed that the experience granted to the three
disciples of Jesus, who went with him to Mount Tabor, the Mount of Transfigu
ration, meant that they were transformed by divine light, which they called the
taboric light (Tabor light).13 Both Rublev and his spiritual father, St. Sergius of
Radonezh, were hesychasts. The icon in their teaching becomes a window to
God’s divine light — the light of Tabor. Rublev aims to paint such a window.
His task was more than merely producing an image of the Holy Trinity. In the
hands of Rublev the icon becomes a place of divine inspiration and a materi
alisation of God’s presence. Meditating on the content expressed by the icon
allows the observer to enter a holy space where a personal transfiguration
becomes a real possibility. To be transformed in God’s likeness (theosis) is the
highest goal of all hesychastic piety. “God has become human in order that
humans become godly.” It is through individual transformation that nations will
The sixth point reflects the missionary theology of St. Sergius. The icon of
the Holy Trinity invites meditation and contemplation in eucharistic terms. But
it also enlightens the faithful for the sake of the divine mission. Jesus at the
table invites us to accept the same calling he received from the Father. “As the
Father has sent me, I am sending you”, says Jesus to John the Evangelist (Jn
20:21). The liturgical experience of the Trinity becomes a divine calling to hu
man beings to become instruments of salvation to the world. This message of
St. Sergius is also the message of Rublev and his masterpiece.
Saint Andrei Rublev was glorified as a saint only in 1988, with feast day on July 4. He is also celebrated as a saint in the Episcopal church of the USA.
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Troparion — Tone 3
Shining with the rays of divine light, / O venerable Andrew, / you knew Christ the wisdom and power of God. / By means of the image of the Holy Trinity / you preached to all the world the Holy Trinity in unity. / And we, with amazement and joy, cry out to you: / As you have boldness before the Most Holy Trinity / Pray that the Uncreated Light / may illumine our souls!
Kontakion — Tone 2
Like a trumpet, you clearly sounded the sweetness of divine hymns, / and were revealed as a brilliant beacon shining on the world with the light of the Trinity. / Therefore, we all cry to you, venerable Andrew: / “Unceasingly pray for us all.”