Andrei Rublev is famous for his icon of the Trinity. It is a stunning vision of the divine community to which, in the Eucharist, the faithful are invited to participate. John Murray PP tells us of the life of Rublev who was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1988 and about the spirituality of icons.
We all have seen it at one time or another. Perhaps it is your favourite painting. Something in its colour and the arrangement of the figures draws us into the mystery. It causes us to stop and think – and maybe pray. Those who ‘write’ icons feel they have achieved their purpose when their work causes us to pray.
Among Russian iconographers, one of the most celebrated is Andrei Rublev, who lived in the latter part of the 14th century and early fifteenth. He died about 1430. He wrote and proclaimed the gospel with paints rather than words.
Those who have had the privilege of visiting Taizé (France) will remember the Orthodox charism as manifested in the many icons which adorn the monastic church. Rublev himself brought the icon to a new level of artistic and spiritual depth and inspired a school of faithful imitators. Sadly, relatively few of his works have survived the rigours of time. Even one of his great icons, The Saviour of Zvenigorod, was discovered in 1918 on the bottom of a board used as a stairway in a barn!
Rublev grew up in a period of monastic revival in Russia. Support for the Church was increasing after a period of turmoil, and he himself joined the great monastery of the Trinity – St. Sergius.
The latter saint had founded the monastery and was in many ways the leader of the 14th century revival in that great nation. The saint had emphasized to his fellow monks the need for ‘fraternity, calm, love toward God and spiritual self-improvement’. At a time of great national division, St. Sergius supported the unification of the quarrelling Russian princes and freedom from the foreign oppression inflicted by the Mongol invaders.
The atmosphere of peace created in the monastery environment enabled the natural gifts and talents of Rublev to surface and flower. Many of his surviving works were created in or near Moscow. By 1405, he was collaborating with the great Greek iconographer, Theophanes, then the foremost icon painter in Russia. Together they worked on the decoration of the magnificent Annunciation Cathedral in the capital city.
While no doubt the young pupil learnt a lot from his Greek master, very soon Rublev’s own work began to take on a style and stamp of its own. He began to break away from the prevailing strictness of form, colour and expression of the time. He began to infuse his work with the gentleness and harmony which were characteristic of his own spirituality. His paintings came out of his prayer and his deep relationship with God.
Yet the work of Rublev and indeed of all iconographers, is much more a matter of paint and canvas (important though these are) and the talent that produces them. The icon writer allows God to speak through them to the people who will gaze upon his creation. The iconographer also knows that he must live a holy life and overcome his own self-centredness by fasting and prayer. Indeed, the holiness of the icon writer may be seen through the works that are left behind.
Rublev is of course, best known for his masterpiece The Trinity. It is based on that moment in the book of Genesis when God visits Abraham and his wife Sarah. It is the very first suggestion of the Trinity in the Bible. The couple offer the hospitality so typical of the East and an earlier icon had indeed been called by that name: The Hospitality of Abraham.
However Rublev removed the figures of Abraham and Sarah from the scene and chose to focus on the mystery of the Trinity. This was controversial, for many heretics questioned the idea of the Trinity at that time.
The Orthodox Church fought against the heresies of that age in words but it took the art of Rublev to lend support to their arguments. His three angelic figures show the differentiation between the persons of the Trinity, at the same time indicating their identity and interrelationship. It is a stunning vision of the divine community to which, in the Eucharist, the faithful are invited to participate.
According to tradition, Rublev was a quiet and rather shy person, who kept himself busy with his devotion to the prayer in the monastery and also to his icon painting. Despite some criticism during his life of his work (some saw it as ‘devoid of the fear of the Lord’ and ‘lacking splendour’) he came to be respected and after his death became a legend whom many tried to imitate.
Rublev died at Andronikov monastery on 29 January 1430 and his remains are buried beneath the floor of the cathedral. Ironically most of the frescoes which he painted for that same cathedral have not survived the test of time.
The monastery itself was saved from destruction during the Communist era by the fact that it became the site of the Rublev museum and it was only after the fall of Communism that it was restored to its original purpose and reopened in May 1991. Rublev was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1988 and the Church authorities have assigned his feast to the date of his death.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (January 2009), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.