A man walks down a sidewalk, then stumbles and falls, gasping for air and clutching the left side of his breast in what seems to be a heart-attack. A priest who happened to be near crouches by the man and asks him, “Do you believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Saint Spirit?”
The man strains to open his eyes, moaning, “I am about to kick the bucket, and you are asking me riddles?!”
The Trinity has been one of the most difficult concepts in Christianity. Having three hypostases of God in a monotheistic religion is no small philosophical feat. I can’t really understand it either, even though I’ve read a lot about it. The Trinity is especially popular in the Orthodox branch of Christianity, with its iconic image to be found in almost every church.
Ideas people don’t understand but have to accept are transformed into superstitions. In Russia, one of the core superstitions is revolving around the number THREE.
“God loves the Trinity” is one of the most frequently used proverbs, applied to a variety of situations, from the need to try three times before admitting a failure to the unavoidability of Putin’s galloping through his third presidential term.
If you lost your wallet, your wife, and your freedom you can relax and feel safe, because nothing bad is going to happen to you now. God loves the Trinity, man.
But there were times in Russia, when the concept of the Trinity played a different, and a rather revolutionary role.
In the late 14th century, Russia was a conglomerate of warring principalities, reporting to the headquarters of the Mongol Empire in the East. Russian princes were fighting each other to win favours from the Mongol CEO (called a Khan). I am sure if you’ve done time with any of the multinational corporations from Forbes 100, you know what it is like firsthand. Nothing’s really changed in the department of favouritism, nepotism, corruption, and incompetence covering up its collective ass by idiotic and cruel decisions.
Russia at the time was drained by both Mongols and its own princes, and was very likely to cease existing as anything resembling a place where Russkies lived together as a nation.
The concept of the Trinity came handy. Due to its complexity, it could be interpreted almost any way you wanted. At the time, the Trinity came to mean Unity, Sacrifice, and Peace. Russia was seen as a country worthy of Peace through Unity in Sacrifice. In a longer, but simpler form it would be like this: Russians were supposed to sacrifice self-interest and their life in Unity against Mongols because only this would bring peace to the land. Or something like that, for it is impossible for a modern man to understand the brain workings of someone who lived 600 years ago with cow’s bladder instead of glass in their windows.
If you ask an artist today to come up with a single piece about Life, Peace, Harmony, Love, Sacrifice, and Unity, you are likely to end up (at best) with an abstract painting you’d have to hire a dozen art critics to explain. And don’t be too hopeful: afterwards, it would mean those five things for you only.
But a monk of the early 15th century could pull the trick of making a painting that was powerfully communicating all these ideas and more.
The monk’s name was Andrey Rublev.
He produced an icon that not only was a skyscraper of storied symbolism, but primarily an instantly inspiring call to action.
I don’t want to push you, face down, in the theological maze of ideas that were reflected in the icon’s incredibly rich symbolism. I am more interested in understanding, What makes the icon resonate with today’s viewers most of whom know only a very basic story behind Trinity?
Click Page 2 below to find out!