Holy Trinity Icon by Andrei Rublev
Interpretation, Iconography of Russian Orthodox Panel Painting

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Holy Trinity Icon
By Andrei Rublev.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Holy Trinity Icon (1411-25)


Interpretation of 15th-Century Religious Paintings


Name: "Holy Trinity Icon"
Date: 1411-25
Artist: Andrei Rublev (c.1360-1430)
Medium: Tempera on wood
Genre: Russian Orthodox Icon painting
Movement: Russian Medieval Painting
Location: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

For analysis and explanation of other important pictures from the Renaissance, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For analysis of icons by
Novgorod or Moscow
painters like Rublev, see
our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of the Holy Trinity Icon by Andrei Rublev

The Holy Trinity Icon (aka 'The Hospitality of Abraham') is a panel painting created by Andrei Rublev (c.1360-1430) in the early 15th century. Probably the most famous of all Russian religious paintings, it represents one of the highpoints of Russian art of the late Medieval era. It was painted between 1411 and 1425, by the monk-artist Andrei Rublev, for the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius. This monastery - located in the town of Sergiyev Posad, about 40 miles north-east of Moscow - was founded in 1345 by St Sergius of Radonezh, and remains the most important Russian monastery as well as the spiritual heart of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In 1551, the Russian Orthodox Church 'Council of the Hundred Chapters' pondered the issue of icons that, a few centuries previously, had so exercised Byzantine art of the Middle Ages. In an effort to define its iconographical canons, the Council declared the Holy Trinity Icon, by Rublev, to be the ideal medieval painting of its type, and the model for all Orthodox Russian artists.




The pictorial and technical qualities of the Holy Trinity Icon are certainly admirable and could scarcely be bettered as a model. So, for this reason at least, such an accolade is hardly surprising. Yet what won over the monks was something deeper and, moreover, more specifically Orthodox: the piece shows an ideal expression of God without God being represented. In the icon of the Trinity, we are in the presence of God, but we do not see him; we do not understand him. Rublev based his work on an episode of the Bible (Genesis 18: 2-15) that refers to the visit of three mysterious travellers, who announce to the aging Abraham and his wife Sarah - whose hospitality they share - that they would soon have a son. In fact, these three angels are hypostases of the One God - that is to say, they represent the three identities of the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. All three figures illustrated here possess identical features. This is not a mistake: the three persons of the Trinity are identical, each fulfilling its own particular role.

In Rublev's painting, the angel on the left represents the Father, the one in the middle the Son, and the one on the right the Holy Spirit, and while those in the centre and right turn their heads in the direction of the one on the left, he remains still, since the Father is the originating principle from whence all derives. All three are blessing the chalice, which contains a sacrificed calf, readied for eating. The calf signifies Christ the Saviour's death on the cross, while its preparation as food represents the sacrament of the Eucharist. Each angel holds a slender staff in a delicate hand as a symbol of their divine power. The unifying symmetry of the meek yet noble figures is softened by the subtle use of shape and colour, while the gold and oranges hues bathe the scene in a warmth and luminosity that boosts its spiritual resonance. There is nothing naive or simplistic about their delicacy, nothing monotonous in the close resemblance between the angels. Their spirituality pervades the picture as they sit in a state of motionless contemplation with their almond-shaped eyes mysteriously fixed on a world unknown to us, a world from which these spiritual creatures, visiting earth for a mere instant, draw breath.

Behind them, there is: (1) a house (supposedly Abraham's house), symbolizing the place of eternal salvation; (2) a tree (the Oak of Mamre), symbolizing the Tree of Life; and (3) a mountain, symbolizing Mount Tabor, where the Holy Spirit appeared during the Transfiguration of Christ. The blue worn by the figures is that of the divine. In the centre of the picture stands the chalice of salvation. The rectangle on the front of the table stands for the cosmos. The composition of the work is circular - that is, without beginning, without end, without hierarchy.

Rublev's genius lay in his decision to reject most of the traditional elements which are found in the depiction of the Abraham and Sarah story of hospitality. He does not show Abraham, or Sarah, or the calf's slaughter, nor does he show any details of the meal. And the angels are shown talking, not eating. Rublev makes the silent communion of the three angels the centre of the composition and the essence of the Trinity. It is an ideal representation of God, without God actually being represented.

For other Russian Orthodox icon painters, see: Theophanes the Greek (c.1340-1410), founder of the Novgorod School of Icon Painting (c.1100-1500). See also: Dionysius (c.1440-1502) and the Moscow School of Painting (c.1500-1700).

Interpretation of 15th-Century Religious Paintings

For an analysis of other religious paintings of the 15th century, see the following articles:

Brancacci Chapel frescoes (1424-8) Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.
By Masaccio and Masolino.

Merode Altarpiece (c.1425) Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York.
By Robert Campin.

Ghent Altarpiece (1425-32) St Bavo Cathedral, Ghent.
By Jan van Eyck.

Descent From the Cross (Deposition) (1435-40) Prado, Madrid
By Roger van der Weyden.

• The Avignon Pieta (1454-6) Louvre, Paris
By Enguerrand Quarton.


• For the meaning/interpretation of other Eastern Orthodox icons, see: Homepage.

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