Plurality in Andre Rublyov’s Old Testament Trinity
While difficult to understand and even more difficult to depict, one of the most complex and important concepts expressed in Christian art and ideology is the idea of the holy trinity. Artistic representations of the three persons of the holy trinity helped people make better sense of the divine mystery of Christ by expressing a complicated theological idea through the use of tangible and concrete visual symbols. Attempts to depict the holy trinity pose valuable questions about how to represent a concept that has long been considered impossible to entirely explain or represent. In many ways, Trinitarian iconology dictates how Christians interpret the figures of God, Christ and the Holy Ghost and their relationship to one another. More specifically, depictions of the holy trinity often emphasize either the plurality or singularity of the three trinitarian figures. A popular artistic example of the holy trinity can be found in medieval Russian artist Andrei Rublyov’s panel painting Old Testament Trinity created circa 1420. It is composed of tempera on wood and is 142 x 114 cm. The work currently resides in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow (museum #281) and is in fact in such poor condition that the museum has refused to loan or move the artwork from its location because of its extreme fragility (Hamburger, 150). The panel was repainted during the 17th century if not more recently (Temple, 64) but is nonetheless severely cracked in a number of places and its colors (especially in the background) have faded. While Rublyov’s painting also reflects the unified will and substance of the figures of the holy trinity, for the most part it remains faithful to Eastern Orthodox representations of the trinity by deliberately emphasizing the plurality of the figures as three separate individuals. The painting’s depiction of trinitarian imagery as simultaneously singular and plural most clearly reflects the idea of the holy trinity as one god manifested in three persons. Because the trinity is such a complicated concept its representations in Christian art vary significantly over time. The first textual references to the trinity are made by Saint Augustine (Augustine of Hippo) who explains it as “neither the father, the son, nor the holy ghost but the one and only true god, the trinity itself” (Verdier, 130). The three figures of the trinity consist of the father, the son and the holy spirit and express the idea that one god or substance is present in all three figures. As a result of the 2nd commandment’s prohibition against “graven images”, Early Christian artists consciously avoided visual representations of God the father if God was ever represented visually he usually appeared in the form of a hand emerging from a cloud (Speake, 112). However, this reluctance to depict God in human form was eventually overcome as evidenced by increasingly common depictions of God’s head alone and later, of his full figure (Ferguson, 72). By the middle of the third century, the Roman Church began to emphasize the overall unity and singularity of the trinity, maintaining that although God is plural in appearance, he is one in substance In the eastern orthodox church on the other hand, people tended to follow the ideas of Origen Adamantius who stressed the plurality of the trinity as consisting of three separate and distinct individuals. Partly as a result of the popularity of Origen’s ideas, the trinity is commonly manifested in Greek and Russian orthodox art from the 4th to 15th centuries as the three angels who visited Abraham in The Hospitality of Abraham at Mamre (Cormack, 86). Many Eastern Orthodox Church officials understood the visitation of Abraham by the three angels as an appearance of the father, the son and the holy ghost. The image of the three angels remained a popular artistic interpretation of the trinity within the Eastern...
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