Today’s masterpiece by Andrei Rublev is more than a painting. It is an icon. An icon is a unique form of spiritual art whose sole purpose is to make the invisible visible. It is not an idol (sacred in and of itself) but venerated in that which it represents. Orthodox believers will speak of “reading” an icon, following John of Damascus who wrote “What the written word is to those who know letters, the icon is to the unlettered; what speech is to the ear, the icon is to the eye.”
Terry Glaspey explains Rublev’s work in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know :
At first glance this famous icon might be a little puzzling to the modern viewer. Who are these three figures highlighted with golden halos? Their barely sketched-out surroundings give us little clue; then we realize that the tree in the upper-right-hand side of the icon is the Oak of Mamre, from the story in Genesis 18, where three angels visit Abraham and Sarah to deliver news from God. Andrei Rublev, the most famous icon painter, adapted that biblical story to represent one of the most mysterious tenets of the Christian faith: the doctrine of the Trinity. When we look more closely at the three figures, we realize that their faces are identical in appearance, and most experts believe that they represent, from left to right, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The three, while distinct, are ultimately One. They cannot easily be distinguished from one another but are each a unique and individual person.
The members of the Trinity are seated around a table, and on that table, in a central position that draws our eyes, is a chalice. That cup is almost certainly intended to put us in mind of the Eucharist and the blood of Christ, who gestures toward it. The three figures are not static; there is a lively communication implied in their eyes, filled with love and blessing. In this icon we glimpse the truth that the three members of the Trinity are in an intimate relationship with one another. And not only with each other but also with us. The icon is a reminder that we are invited into the circle of relationship shared by the divine Trinity, for there is an empty place at the table in the foreground of the image. Perhaps that place has been readied for us, where we may fellowship with the Holy Trinity and partake of the holy cup of salvation.
Does your religious tradition include icons?
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
D I G D E E P E R
The Holy Trinity Icon, by Andrei Rublev
Beckett, Sister Wendy. Real Presence: In Search of the Earliest Icons. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010.
Haustein-Bartsch, Eva. Icons. Köln: Taschen, 2008.
Martin, Linette. Sacred Doorways: A Beginner’s Guide to Icons. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2002.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying With Icons. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1987.
Generally acknowledged as Russia’s greatest iconographer, Andrei Rublev was born around 1365 near Moscow. While very young he entered the monastery of The Holy Trinity and in 1405, with the blessing of his igumen (the Orthodox equivalent of abbot), he transferred to the Spaso-Andronikov monastery where he received the tonsure and studied iconography with Theophanes the Greek and the monk Daniel. Among his most revered works are those in the Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir.
The icon (“image” in Greek) is central to Orthodox spirituality. It finds its place in liturgy and in personal devotion. An icon is two-dimensional and despite being an image of someone it is not a physical portrait. Western art, especially since the Renaissance, has sought to represent figures or events so that the viewer might better imagine them. A western crucifix seeks to enable us to imagine what Golgotha was like. Icons seek to provide immediate access to the spiritual and the divine unmediated by the human, historical imagination.
For Andrei, writing an icon was a spiritual exercise. It involved the ritual of preparing the surface, applying the painted and precious metal background and then creating the image, first outlining it in red. Throughout he would repeatedly say the “Jesus Prayer” (“Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me”). He was creating a window into the Divine which he knew was always before him but which was invisible to the human eye. He knew he was able to create such an image of God because he himself was made in the image of God. His object was to be totally focused on receiving God’s love and loving in return. He died peacefully in 1430.
Episcopal Church, Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (New York: Church Publishing, 2010), 196.
I’m really looking forward to discussing my book, “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know,” with the members of Literary Life Book Club. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and perspectives on some of the art, music, and literature you’ll discover in the book. I’m interested in how it speaks to you in your life and the ways it inspires, challenges, or maybe even annoys you! I’ll try to share some “deleted scenes” stuff I had to leave out and will tell a few stories about what I experienced while doing the writing and research. Hope that many of you can join us as we look at he stories behind some truly wonderful art.
Let’s explore together!
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Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.
He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.
He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.
Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.
He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.
Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.
Dig Deeper at TerryGlaspey.com
Some of the greatest painters, musicians, architects, writers, filmmakers, and poets have taken their inspiration from their faith and impacted millions of people with their stunning creations. Now readers can discover the stories behind seventy-five of these masterpieces and the artists who created them. From the art of the Roman catacombs to Rembrandt to Makoto Fujimura; from Gregorian Chant to Bach to U2; from John Bunyan and John Donne to Flannery O’Connor and Frederick Buechner; this book unveils the rich and varied artistic heritage left by believers who were masters at their craft.
Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).
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