Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Pre-Rublev: Winged Trinity

(Old Testament Trinity)
Mid-14th century
168 × 144 cm
The Assumption Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin

Yesterday, we looked at Andrei Rublev's masterpiece, and I've found some more material on that, but I wanted to post this image, which dates to a century or so before Rublev's own icon, to show the tradition within which he was working and from which he departed somewhat.

Notable is the presence of Abraham and Sarah, as well as of a young servant (or might it be Ishmael?) slaughtering the calf for the meal, for precisely in ignoring these other three figures lay part of Rublev's innovation. The other part of his innovation lay in removing Christological symbols from the central figure.

Why did Rublev innovate in this way? According to Alexander Boguslawski, an expert on Russian art:
Very few artists before Rublev dared to eliminate all the narrative elements from the story, leaving only the three angels; usually those who did so had to deal with limited space. The results of their efforts did not find general acceptance or many copyists. Rublev was the first to make a conscious decision not to include in his composition the figures of Abraham and Sarah because he did not set out to illustrate the story of the hospitality of Abraham, as did many painters before him, but to convey through his image the idea of the unity and indivisibility of the three persons of the Trinity.

The doctrine of the Trinity, difficult to explain logically, found various interpretations. Some thought that the Trinity consisted of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Others believed that it was just God and two angels. In the 14th and 15th-century Russia, in the period of many heretical movements, the idea of the Trinity was often questioned. The heretics in Novgorod claimed that it is not permissible to paint the Trinity on icons because Abraham did not see the Trinity but only God and two angels. Other heretics rejected the idea of the three hypostases of God altogether. The church fought the heresies with all the means it had -- usually with polemical treaties, but also with force, if necessary. Russian icon painters before Rublev subscribed to the same point of view that Abraham was visited by God (in Christ's image) and two angels. Hence, Christ was represented in icons of the Trinity as the middle angel and was symbolically set apart either by a halo with a cross, by a considerable enlargement of his figure, by widely spread wings or by a scroll in His hand.
In the pre-Rublev image above, the middle figure would seem to be portrayed in the image of Christ, for he is giving the Orthodox sign of the cross, so I assume that the unknown artist interpreted the story as one in which "Abraham was visited by God (in Christ's image) and two angels." Compare this to Rublev's icon:

Andrei Rublev, Hospitality of Abraham
The Old Testament Trinity
(Image from Wikipedia)

Alexander Boguslawski notes some interesting ambiguities in Rublev's painting:
All scholars agree that the three hypostases of the Trinity are represented in Rublev's icon. But there are greatly differing views as to which angel represents which hypostasis. Many see Christ in the middle angel and God the Father in the left. Others see God the Father in the middle angel, and Christ in the left one. The middle angel occupies a special place in the icon: it is set apart not only by its central position, but also by a "regal" turn of its head towards the left angel, and by pointing with its hand towards the cup on the table. Both the turn of the head and the gesture are important clues to the hidden meaning of the icon. Equal among equals, the middle angel has such expressive power that one hesitates not to see in it a symbolic representation of God the Father. On the other hand one cannot fail to notice that the left angel is also essential: two other angels lower their heads towards it and seem to address it. Therefore, if we assume that the left angel is God the Father, the middle angel, dressed in the clothes customarily used in compositions depicting the second person of the Trinity (a blue himation and a crimson tunic), should represent Christ. This amazing and perhaps purposeful encoding of these two persons of the Trinity by Rublev does not give us a clear clue for a single interpretation. Whatever the case, the icon shows a dialogue between two angels: The Father turns to His Son and explains the necessity of His sacrifice, and the Son answers by agreeing with His Father's wish.
In referring to the angel on the "left," Boguslawski is describing the image from our perspective. Seen from the middle figure's perspective, this angel is actually on the right, and one would expect to find the Son in that righthand position, the Father thus being the central figure, but Boguslawski has made some interesting points about ambiguity concerning the precise identification of the three figures -- which might, indeed, be the point that Rublev is trying to convey about the Trinity, that these are the three hypostases of God, not merely God and two angels.

But I leave that for your contemplation.

Meanwhile, take a look at Boguslawski's own art, for he not only comments as a scholar on Slavic art, he paints his own artwork as an artist (and something about his style recalls in some way the style of Terrance Lindall, though the latter's vision is darker).

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At 3:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear HJH,
Thanks for "trusting" my comments, discussing the Trinity, and even mentioning my own art. Let me just add, in connection to the picture of the icon from The Assumption Cathedral, that it is heavily overpainted (in the 17th century)and perhaps doesn't really reveal the old composition which was there originally. In other words, the 14th-century work was much simpler and definitely did not include all the elements we see on the "restored" work -- possibly did not include the servant slaying the calf or the objects on the table or the architectural details.
Wishing you all the best,
Alexander Boguslawski
Professor of Russian Studies
Rollins College

At 4:28 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thank you, Professor Boguslawski, for the surprise appearance and your further remarks.

Your views certainly appeared trustworthy to me.

I had noticed that the icon from the Assumption Cathedral seemed to have been restored, for the head of the angel on the right (from our perspective) looks as though it were lifted from a different icon and superimposed. Note that this 'angel' has a crown (or something like one), whereas the other two winged figures do not.

By the way, if you have time, perhaps you could explain this icon showing a winged Christ the Blessed Silence with what appears to be a seraph in his bosom.

When I saw this, I wondered if there were some allusion to the winged 'Christ' of St. Francis's vision when he received the stigmata, for 'Christ' took the form of a seraph there (though such a Catholic allusion would be unexpected in an Orthodox painting).

Thanks again for your visit.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:25 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

P.S. If you do have any remarks on the Blessed Silence icon, you might leave them here.

Jeffery Hodges

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