Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Trinity, Part I - In Eastern Spirituality

Icon of the Old Testament Trinity, c. 1410, Andrei Rublev
To get to the heart of Eastern and Western spirituality, we can take as our starting point the artistic representation of the Trinity that is the most typical for each of the two churches.

For the Orthodox Church, that would certainly be Rublev's icon of the Trinity...

One thing should be said immediately about this icon. It does not purport to directly represent the Trinity, which is, by definition, invisible and ineffable. Attempting to do so would be contrary to all the canons of Byzantine ecclesiastical iconography. Instead, it depicts the three angels who appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre (see Genesis 18:1-15). In that tradition, before and after Rublev, Abraham, Sarah, the calf and an oak tree often appear. This episode, in fact, is read by the patristic tradition as an early prefigurement of the Trinity. The icon is one of the artistic forms that follow a spiritual reading of the Bible. It is, thus, not the atemporal Trinity that is represented, but the Trinity in salvation history.

All the experts agree that Rublev's icon is the zenith of all iconographic art in terms of its power for theological synthesis, its richness of symbols, and its artistic beauty. It conveys the very rhythm of trinitarian life. Unceasing motion and superhuman stillness, transcendence and condescendence, are simultaneously represented.

The dogma of the unity and trinity of God is expressed by the fact that the three Persons represented are distinct but closely resemble each other. They are contained within a circle that highlights their unity. They are contained within a circle that highlights their unity, but their diverse motions and postures speak of their differences.

Contemplating the Trinity: The Path to Abundant Christian Life by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa
I know so little about looking at art that this was a revelation not only for the concept of the Trinity but also for the way to examine what the artist was communicating. More to come in Part II.

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