The Andrei Rublev icon given to me on Tuesday amazes me. It contains at least two meta narratives: one of Abraham, Sarah and the Angels at Mamre, and the other of communication between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. For me it also contains countless micro narratives, personal stories, new reflections, ideas and prayers that jump into my mind when I look at it. It is full of shape and colour. Those are the tools Rublev uses to communicate on countless levels. I like that it is full of circles and triangles! And, each geometric shape shows something yet more beautiful. I have drawn on the image here to show you what I mean. These ideas are not new, and they are not my own, Rublev designed his icon to have these shapes and many people before me have commented on them.
The big circle encompasses the three central figures. They seem a confusing bunch at first. Their faces are all identical. Behind each of them is an object, behind the figure on the left is a house, behind the figure in the centre is a tree, and behind the figure on the right is a mountain. They seem to have golden wings. Perhaps then, these figures are the mysterious visitors that call upon Abraham and Sarah under the trees of Mamre in Genesis 18.
The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.He said, “If I have found favour in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”
“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”
So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”
Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.
“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.
“There, in the tent,” he said.
Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”
Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”
Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”
Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”
But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
I am glad Sarah laughed. I would have laughed too. Strangers turning up all dusty and telling you are going to have a child in your old age. Your husband getting all the credit for your hard work in the kitchen. Bloomin' ridiculous. There is a lot in just this story. Something about hospitality, and about life being God given, treasured by people (travelers across the desert would have died were it not for the hospitality of strangers such as Abraham and Sarah). There is something about having faith in the impossible. But, the icon has more.
Each of the figures in the icon have their own circles, a halo which marks them out as individuals. They are dressed distinctly, and have separate gestures. They have individual identities. The figure on the right dresses in the blue of the heavens, but also a vibrant green - the symbol of new life. Behind him is the mountain. Throughout the Bible, mountains are where people meet God - places where heaven touches earth. This figure shows that too, he touches the table, animating the discussion between the figures. This is an image of God the Holy Spirit.
The central figure also wears blue, but he wears it in equal proportion to an earthy brown, the symbol of humanity. He has a golden stripe across his shoulder, representative of Kingship. This is an icon of Christ. He rests two fingers on the table to show his dual nature - fully human, fully divine. Behind him is the tree which gave shelter to the vulnerable visitors of Abraham, but now it has become a symbol of the cross. Christ points towards a cup of wine on the table, a reminder of his passion and representative of the Eucharist.
Finally, the figure on the left. Do you remember the invisibility cloak in Harry Potter? I think I know where she got the idea from. The blue of this figure can only be seen in snatches beneath his ethereal robe. Perhaps I found the reason that God is so elusive? He has an invisibility cloak? God the Father rests his hands on a staff, a symbol of authority. Behind him is a house, a dwelling place for God. "In my Father's house there are many mansions," promises Christ, 'I go to prepare a place for you" (John 14:2).
Look what has happened to the Angel's wings? They have gone and morphed into posh chairs! Cheeky.
How can one image be so rich? I haven't even started on the triangles. Perhaps I shall mention only one. From the foot of God the Father, going up and across the table, and down to the foot of God the Holy Spirit, a clear triangle can be seen. And, it is pointing towards the viewer, particularly if you imagine you are looking upwards towards the icon. Rublev is making an invitation. The three figures are inclined towards each other, listening and communicating. The viewer must step into the icon to change the triangle into a planisphere. There is a space left: humanity is invited to listen in, to listen to God.
Right! Enough! I could go on forever and this is too long. I love Rublev; I love this icon. I always have. It is sometimes called The Old Testament Trinity. It used to hang in the RE office at St. Thomas More School too.