“The Trinity” (also called “The Hospitality of Abraham”) is an icon created by the Russian painter Andrei Rublev in the 15th century. It is regarded as the most famous of all Russian icons and as one of the highest achievements of Russian art. It has been copied countless times with some variations on the basic theme. What you see on these pages is an interpretation of this icon in mixed fabrics. While not the traditional medium for icon “writing,” it captures the spirit of the original.
The icon depicts the three angels who visited Abraham at the Oak of Mamre (see Gn 18:1-8), but the painting is full of symbolism and is interpreted as an icon of the Holy Trinity.
The symbol that dominates the entire composition is the circle, a shape that speaks of divinity, without beginning or end. Rublev intentionally does not place the three angels within the circle, but rather he creates the circle with their bodies. Thus our eyes can’t stop at any of the three, suggesting we are invited to rest in the company of the “Three in One.” The center of the composition is the cup filled with bright red wine. It hints at the crucifixion sacrifice and serves as a reminder of the Eucharist, reminiscent of Christ breaking bread with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.
Icons are universally appreciated because of their innate spiritual quality. They invite us to prayer in the presence of something we instinctively know is holy. Why is this? I suggest that it is due to the two-dimensional nature of their design. In traditional icons, there is no shadow created by one material source of light. Rather, icons show the world bathed in divine grace and saints radiant with the indwelling Holy Spirit. Even the rocks flash out this light. Although the garments follow the essential logic of drapery, they are not naturalistically rendered. They are abstract and rhythmical. The inanimate landscape shares in the spiritual dynamic of the event.
Unlike works in three dimensions that use perspective to draw us into the picture, icons are flat, almost protruding out into our space to make the mystery present to us. It is their abstraction that conveys the holy. We tend to think of abstraction as a departure from reality. The opposite is true. It gives us direct access to the reality behind the physical form.
It may not be too far-fetched to see in icons a precursor of the abstract art of our own day.
FATHER VINCENT DE PAUL CROSBY is a monk, priest and artist at St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. To see his work, visit fabricart.net.