Image and Reflection: Andrei Rublev’s icon
Our chaplain, Cathy Michell, is fascinated by icons. Here she explains why she was drawn to the image of this particular medieval icon. This photo of the icon is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
“This image is the famous icon by the Russian icon ‘writer’ Rublev dating from 1411AD. A copy of it hangs in our meeting room at ERMC, appropriately framed all in gold! Recently it became the focus of discussion as we waited for our staff meeting to begin. I said that I had always be drawn to this image and was challenged to say why that was the case. Being compelled to put such an attraction into words is always salutary – so here goes!
“Firstly I enjoy icons themselves and possess many reproductions of them in postcard form as well as larger copies, including a few of my own attempts, (greatly helped on by my very gifted teacher).
“It is the colours that draw me – rich shades of red, blues and greens especially, but also, of course, the gold leaf of backgrounds and haloes. The painstaking creation of icons, from preparation of the gessoed board beneath, through the skilful laying on and burnishing of the gold, to the layers of egg tempura working from dark shades to light, provokes wonder. But even better for me, is the strata of symbolism and theology contained in these objects of devotion. Because that is the raison d’etre of an icon. All the artist’s prayerful attention and long hours have been spent creating a ‘window into heaven’ where gold enables the image to shine from within, disclosing the nature of holiness and God’s divine glory. For the viewer is the worshipper, and before such an image one can only bow in humility and adoration. Here it is possible to gaze into the eyes of Christ or the saints and receive their blessing. Here it is possible to see God face to face.
“And that is what this particular icon reveals. It shows three winged figures seated in an open circle round a white table with a single cup on its surface. In the background is a building and a green tree. The figures each incline their heads to the others in mutual acknowledgement and grace. There is a sense of great stillness and composure. The viewer is an invisible participant or guest in this quiet scene. What the icon beautifully combines is, at one level, the story of Abraham and his mysterious visitors at the oaks of Mamre, (Genesis 18:1-16), and a visual embodiment of the Holy Trinity on the other. Just as God came to the patriarch and his household in the guise of two angelic guests welcomed by him to sit and eat, (guests who came to disclose to him a truth that made Sarah his wife laugh out loud!), so God shows himself to us as Father (figure on the left), Son (middle) and Spirit (right), Three Persons, yet of one in substance as the Nicene creed declares; (note how they are all shown clothed in the blue of divinity). Rublev’s composition conveys to the viewer the relationship of pure love which exists between these Persons. God is mutuality. Additionally, we are reminded of the hospitality that exists not only between the figures themselves but, just as was given by Abraham to those ‘angels unawares’*, is offered in the same way to us around the open, welcoming table of communion as we share the common cup blessed by Christ himself.”
*Listen to Malcolm Guite’s song inspired by these words from Hebrews 13:2