Rublev’s Trinity: why is it a great painting?

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!

4 thoughts on “Rublev’s Trinity: why is it a great painting?

  1. Spiros

    I thank you for your responses and your wonderful posts!

    On Rublev’s art and philosophy, I also reflect on the influence by Theophanes the Greek, if any…

    1. artmoscow Post author

      Of course there was influence, they even worked together; and again it was about ascetism and austerity, with a focus on individual religious experience and the need for selfless monastic feats.

  2. Spiros

    Thank you very much for this post!

    I would like to recommend to those who are not familiar with the iconography and their philosophical approach, to read the book about the reverse perspective by Pavel Florensky-at least it’s a good start.
    Also it is essential to understand why God has no portrait but a representive figure instead, through the trinity. The symbols are also important: the circle, the triangles (I would stay in the two for the moment) and also the octagon-as symbol and also as a number-the ressurection (after the sacrifice). God himself. The meaning of colours as well. Heavenly blue (lazurite, in most cases as you notice, usually from where is today Afganistan), red representing human (usually a kind of red ochre-cinnabar was also common).
    I believe it is also important that the figures of Abraham and Sarah are missing…
    And finally we have to think under what circumstances Trinity is created: As Andrei Tarkovsky wrote in his book “Sculpting in Time” about the film making on Rublev:
    “The film was to show how the national yearning for brotherhood, at a time of vicius internecine fighting and the Tartar yoke, gave birth to Rublyov’s inspired Trinity-epitomising the ideal of brotherhood, love and quiet sanctity.”

    1. artmoscow Post author

      Thank you ) Your contribution is marvellous!

      The Trinity has 7 or 9 attributes that are all abstract notions and which Rublev successfully reflected in his icon. Yet, this is of interest to people who are really into iconography and art history. Though a description of Rublev genius might be incomplete without dealing with tools he used to show these abstract notions. Removing all the unnecessary details (like Sarah and Abraham was one of those). Frankly, I didn’t find a way to do it in a way that would be engaging for iconography beginners )

      I don’t and I can’t agree with Tarkovsky about the concept of “brotherhood” primarily because Rublev was obviously under a heavy influence of Sergiy of Radonezh via Nikon, his pupil. And Sergyi was about not national, but religious brotherhood – and only later the ideas of national unity were linked to him. Sergiy was about religious withdrawal, first of all, from all the earthly troubles, and was concerned about saving the soul of an individual man rather than that of a nation.

      The main thing I think is important to know about the reverse perspective for today’s viewer is that it allows the viewer to become a participant of events shown in an icon. I will try to do a short post about it – you gave me an idea – thank you again!


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