The Holy Trinity Icon
In honor of Waltraud and Richard Denten and Robert Peyre
Genesis 18:1-3 And the Lord appeared to him [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant.”
Christian artists have depicted the Holy Trinity in a variety of ways. Early artists never depicted God the Father in human form, but as the Dextera Domini, the Hand of God. In the 9th-century apse of St. Mark’s, Venice, Christ stands below the Hand of God and above a dove. In the 16th century, God the Father, depicted as the Ancient of Days – a bearded old man in white garments – sat on a throne, with Christ the Word on his lap, and Christ holding a halo containing a dove.
In the Orthodox Church, the visit of the three men to Abraham is interpreted as a revelation of the Holy Trinity. Abraham and Sarah offered food and drink to the visitors who, in turn, promised the aged couple that the barren Sarah would bear a son.
In Andrei Rublev’s 15th-century icon, from which the icon before you is copied, the three angelic figures represent the three Divine Persons of the Trinity. The table has become an altar, and the meal has become the eucharistic chalice with the head of a sacrificial animal. In the background, Abraham’s tent is represented by a temple – the House of God. The Oak of Mamre is now the Tree of Life planted by God in Paradise. From it, according to Tradition, came the wood of the Cross. The mountain signifies spiritual ascent.
Which Divine Person is represented by which angelic figure? There are different interpretations. The interpretation that I understand is that the figures represent, from left to right, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The Son and the Holy Spirit are bowing their heads toward the Father, Who is the Source of both. The Son points with two fingers to the chalice, indicating his mission to become the sacrificial lamb, human and divine, through the Incarnation. The Father gives the Son a gesture of blessing. The Holy Spirit points to the rectangle in the front of the altar, the rectangle symbolizing the world. This signifies that the divine sacrifice is a sacrifice for the salvation of the world.
This icon perfectly represents the One Essence of the three Persons of the Trinity.
—Brian Nicholas Tsai, iconographer 2003