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- The classic painting of the hospitality scene (pictured below) from Genesis 18:1 – 8 was done by Andrei Rublev. This icon was commissioned to honor the 15th-century Russian saint Sergius of Radonezh of the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius Monastery near Moscow, where Rublev lived as a monk. Little is known about the Icon’s history. Art historians can only make suggestions based on few known facts. Official versions place Rublev’s writing of this icon at either 1411, or 1425-27. Even the authorship of Rublev has been questioned. Various authors suggest different dates, such as 1408-1425, 1422-1423 or 1420-1427. The Trinity (Russian: Troitsa) is currently held in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
It is his most famous work and the most famous of all Russian, possibly of all Orthodox, icons. Very few artists before Rublev dared to eliminate all the narrative elements from the Genesis 18 story, leaving only the three angels; usually those who did so had to deal with limited space. The results of their efforts did not find general acceptance or many copyists. Rublev was the first to make a conscious decision not to include in his composition the figures of Abraham and Sarah because he did not set out to illustrate the story of the hospitality of Abraham, as did many painters before him, but to convey through his image the idea of the unity and indivisibility of the three persons of the Trinity.
However, the Trinity is in fact Ultimate Hospitality into whose Circle all humanity, even the entire redeemed universe, is called to an endless Dance of Pure Joy, invitation to which is premised on eternally proffered forgiveness…
Another Orthodox theologian, Father Thomas Hopko expresses it thus here:
After I heard this I started reading the Church Fathers in this light, and that’s what they all say. They say, “Your brother is your life.” I have no self in myself except the one that is fulfilled by loving the other. The Trinitarian character of God is a metaphysical absolute here, so to speak. God’s own self is another—his Son, to use Christian evangelical terms. The same thing happens on the human level; so the minute I don’t feel deeply that my real self is the other, then I’ll have no reason to forgive anyone. But if that is my reality, and my only real self is the other, and my own identity and fulfillment emerge only in the act of loving the other, that gives substance to the idea that we are potentially God-like beings. Now, if you add to that that we are all to some degree faulty, weak, and so on, that act of love will always be an act of forgiveness. That’s how I find and fulfill myself as a human being made in God’s image. Otherwise, I cannot. So the act of forgiveness is the very act by which our humanity is constituted. Deny that, and we kill ourselves. It’s a metaphysical suicide.
An interpretation of the icon:
THE SYMBOLISM IN THE ICON
In the Hebrew Testament, the animal of sacrifice was usually described as being a calf, whereas in the Christian Testament, the sacrificial animal is a lamb; this icon then refers us to the Hebrew Testament where this story is told.
All three angels are effectively repeats of the central figure, although with color alterations to their clothing. All three carry a rod or staff, surmounted by a cross, signifying that each is a Heavenly messenger. In this way, we are able to represent those who have not been seen on earth, without violating Orthodox Church Canons regarding our being forbidden to actually depict God the Father or the Holy Spirit, since they have not been seen.
The central figure, dressed in Court attire of heavy, earth-bound, clothing and formal hair-style typical of the Emperor’s Court at Byzantium, is understood to be Jesus Christ. Jesus wears a dark purple chiton , or tunic, decorated with a gold embroidered clavis, (decoration) on the shoulder and a chlamys (heavy cloak) of intense blue.
All of Christ’s garments drape in stiff, formal, classical folds; wings depict Him as an angel or winged messenger. Christ’s nimbus (halo) in this depiction is highly unusual in that the cruciform shape customary in every iconographic representation of Christ’s halo is here absent. It appears that Rublev’s intent was to show all three persons of the Trinity as equal, even to the depiction of their nimbii. In the original, it appears that all three nimbii were once covered in gold, now lost. Christ points to the vessel on the table and inclines His head and body in the direction of the angel to His right (the position of honor at table); this is understood to signify Christ’s acceptance of His Father’s will as the ultimate sacrifice.
The angel on Christ’s right, is understood to be God the Father. He is dressed similarly to Christ, but with more ethereal colors and a lightness of fabric “not of this world”. His chlamys is a paler purple with much gold assiste (highlights) over an azure chiton. With His right hand God the Father blesses the chalice-like vessel containing the Sacrificial calf. This symbolizes the Father ordaining the eventual Sacrifice of His Son. This vessel and the white table-top are also seen as prefiguring the Chalice and Mensa (altar) of the Eucharist. The Father’s gaze is directed to the third angel…the third part of the Holy Trinity.
The angel on the viewer’s right is garbed similarly to the others…the ephemeral fabric and colors here represent the Holy Spirit descending and bringing new life to the Apostles. In Russian Orthodoxy, the liturgical color for Pentecost is green; the Holy Spirit’s chlamys is a light green, as is the floor; the green symbolic of new growth. In its “home” Cathedral, Rublev’s icon was the Pentecost Festal icon.
In the background we see the Oak Tree at Mamre, a precursor symbolic of the “Wood of the Cross” and the building, the home of Abraham and Sarah. On the viewer’s right, the mountain is shown bending down its tip in an act of obeisance to and veneration of, the Holy Trinity.
The rectangular space in the front of the table is a curiosity. Traditionally, icons are written in the Byzantine “flat” style, with no conventional perspective used at all. However, this “hole” is in perfect perspective…perhaps Rublev’s way of saying, “we know all about perspective but it is not what we show in icons…we show the spiritual world and the subject’s spiritual qualities”. In fact, it depicts the space on the Eastern side of a mensa where traditionally, relics of saints and reserved, consecrated Eucharistic elements were set. (Today, we use the aumbrie for reserving consecrated elements.) The overall composition is one of extremely elegant proportions and defined circular movement in the center of the icon created by the bending bodies, the feet and floor pedestals, inclining of the heads and the building, tree and mountain. This icon is especially effective at drawing in the viewer and capturing his or her meditation. (Source)
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