A man walks down a sidewalk, then stumbles and falls, gasping for air and clutching the left side of his breast in what seems to be a heart attack. A priest who happened to be near crouches by the man and asks him, “Do you believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Saint Spirit?”
The man strains to open his eyes, moaning, “I am about to kick the bucket, and you are asking me riddles?!”
The Trinity has been one of the most difficult concepts in Christianity. Having three hypostases of God in a monotheistic religion is no small philosophical feat. I can’t really understand it either, even though I’ve read a lot about it. The Trinity is especially popular in the Orthodox branch of Christianity, with its iconic image to be found in almost every church.
Ideas people don’t understand but have to accept are transformed into superstitions. In Russia, one of the core superstitions is revolving around the number THREE.
“God loves the Trinity” is one of the most frequently used proverbs, applied to a variety of situations, from the need to try three times before admitting a failure to the unavoidability of Putin’s galloping through his third presidential term.
If you lost your wallet, your wife, and your freedom you can relax and feel safe because nothing bad is going to happen to you now. God loves the Trinity, man.
But there were times in Russia when the concept of the Trinity played a different and a rather revolutionary role.
In the late 14th century, Russia was a conglomerate of warring principalities, reporting to the headquarters of the Mongol Empire in the East. Russian princes were fighting each other to win favours from the Mongol CEO (called a Khan). I am sure if you’ve done time with any of the multinational corporations from Forbes 100, you know what it is like firsthand. Nothing’s really changed in the department of favouritism, nepotism, corruption, and incompetence covering up its collective ass by idiotic and cruel decisions.
Russia at the time was drained by both Mongols and its own princes and was very likely to cease existing as anything resembling a place where Russkies lived together as a nation.
The concept of the Trinity came handy. Due to its complexity, it could be interpreted almost any way you wanted. At the time, the Trinity came to mean Unity, Sacrifice, and Peace. Russia was seen as a country worthy of Peace through Unity in Sacrifice. In a longer, but simpler form it would be like this: Russians were supposed to sacrifice self-interest and their life in Unity against Mongols because only this would bring peace to the land. Or something like that, for it is impossible for a modern man to understand the brain workings of someone who lived 600 years ago with cow’s bladder instead of glass in their windows.
If you ask an artist today to come up with a single piece about Life, Peace, Harmony, Love, Sacrifice, and Unity, you are likely to end up (at best) with an abstract painting you’d have to hire a dozen art critics to explain. And don’t be too hopeful: afterwards, it would mean those five things for you only.
But a monk of the early 15th century could pull the trick of making a painting that was powerfully communicating all these ideas and more.
The monk’s name was Andrey Rublev.
He produced an icon that not only was a skyscraper of storied symbolism but primarily an instantly inspiring call to action.
I don’t want to push you, face down, in the theological maze of ideas that were reflected in the icon’s incredibly rich symbolism. I am more interested in understanding, What makes the icon resonate with today’s viewers most of whom know only a very basic story behind the Trinity?
If you don’t remember the story, here it is:
Abraham was an old man and his wife, Sarah, was an old woman. No kids, just a nephew called Lot, like the Polish airline. They lived in a tent, but were rich and had many servants, camels, she- and he-asses. One day, three men stopped at the threshold of his tent. Abraham recognised THEM as the Lord. He fed them (bread, cheese, milk and a calf) and they (the Lord) told him his wife would have a child by the same time next year. And this is how Israelites came to be a nation. After that, the three men went on to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.
You see, it is hard to tell a story of three men who are one God.
What did Rublev do to achieve Harmony and Unity, showing that Life is Eternal along the way? He did it by using a simple circular composition for the figures of angels:
What is in the centre of the circle? A bowl with the calf’s head, the symbol of sacrifice that one of the angels (Son) will have to do to save the Man.
The three angels sit peacefully and silently. When three personalities are in harmony with each other, none of them has the urge to talk to his other selves. They know the sacrifice would have to be made, they know it would have to be made to save people from, basically, themselves, for people have a strange tendency to wander off the right ways and threaten the very existence of themselves. The circle of life needs to be maintained.
In Rublev’s age, the leading thought was simple: a man could only believe in the Trinity, and only prophets could understand it. Rublev BELIEVED that the Trinity represented those things about the Lord that Russia and its people were in desperate need of at the time.
This is why Sacrifice is at the centre. It was most required. Russian history overall is a history of incessant sacrifice of human life, and I just wonder if Rublev somehow felt that he was painting an icon of the Russian soul, which – as we know it today – didn’t exist then.
A Sacrifice that allows Eternal Life to continue. Calf’s head in a round bowl inside an endless circle. A genius representation of a very humanistic, Renaissance idea, but only if it is applied to an individual man. Unfortunately, later it was applied to a whole nation. Russians have to sacrifice themselves for Russia to become a great country. Come on! Rublev’s Trinity is about Life! Not a country’s greatness! When the idea of Life is supplanted by the notion of a great country, the whole idea becomes anti-humanistic.
Now, is this promise convincing? I mean, do we know how God should be portrayed? Do we know how to visualise Paradise, the Kingdom of Heaven? No. Realistic images of an old man with a mighty beard (Father), a dove (Santo Spirito), and a man in his thirties (Son) – all of them supported by angels and sitting on clouds come as a giant proxy we really don’t believe.
This is the most realistic representation of the Trinity by Tiepolo. This painting gives the viewer a very realistic vision of what the Pope must have seen when he was praying:
The dramatisation of the story is achieved by the realistic clouds invading the cathedral, and angels with strong and healthy bodies paradoxically floating aboveground and looking up to the very bulky Trinity above. The Trinity here is so big, heavy, and corporeal you can’t miss it when it descends upon you.
But do we believe – for a second – that angels look like mortal, bone & flesh people whose weight is measured in kilograms, stones or pounds?
Can we treat this painting as a revelation? Can it really inspire us to start thinking about the Eternal Life of the soul?
Unless the viewer is gullible enough to believe street magicians use real magic, the answer is no.
Rublev gave us three zero-weight angels who do not float in the air to impress the poor old Abraham. They use chairs for comfort. But look at them closer. They don’t need those chairs! They’ve taken those chairs to camouflage their angelic nature.
They weigh nothing. They walk barely touching the ground with their feet. But how to show them full of life then, and not some thin zombies? Aha. The blue colour. Rublev was making his own paints, using minerals. The blue colour comes from Lazurite, a rare mineral from the North of Russia. This incredible sky-worthy blue is not used on the sky. It is used on the angels, for the skies are in them. They are the skies. The Heavenly Kingdom.
Moreover, even the chairs weigh nothing. This is the trick of reverse/inverse perspective. Were the chairs made using the “normal” perspective we are used to, they would get on weight and mass. Objects in reverse perspective get wider as they get farther from us (and, consequently, they take more space in the picture), but our brain does not accept them as real objects and does not assign them any mass, interpreting them as floating “somethings” just resembling chairs.
And now, my favourite question: where is the conflict in this painting, if everything shown here has no mass, and is in perfect balance and harmony?
The contrapunto of this icon is the inevitability, contemplation and acceptance of the Sacrifice that would have to be made. The angels may seem to sit still, and relaxed, but look closer at their lines of sight:
Look also at the “tension” curves merging at the sacrifice bowl:
And last, but not least – the angels are composed as a sacrifice bowl themselves:
In effect, Rublev gave the viewer a glimpse of the Heavens, and in the 15th century, it stood for a very credible promise of Eternal Life. What would you do, how would your life change, were you convincingly offered such a promise today?
From the art history point of view, I find it very interesting that at the same time (almost the same year) as Rublev’s Trinity thousands of miles away, in Florence, Masaccio was painting the walls of a church with frescoes that would change the way men looked upon themselves. These Adam and Eve heralded a new take on the portrayal of Humanity, its role and responsibility in this world:
Renaissance was shooting up through the crust of Dark Ages. In Russia, the wrong interpretation of Rublev’s sacrifice helped to build the cruel empire of Ivan the Terrible. In Europe, it led to Michelangelo, Reformation, and Religious wars that killed about the same number of people. Ironic, isn’t it, how much can depend on the interpretation of art?
All right, all right, I admit I am stretching the role of art criticism here. Or maybe not.
P.S. Homework for the curious. How many triangles can you find in the composition of Rublev’s icon? Can you find an octagon? What do you think the octagon meant back then in the 1420s? There is a theory that Rublev used two triangles forming the star of David to represent the harmony of female and male essence, sort of the Yin and Yang harmony. Can you find them?