Kim Fabricius contemplates an icon of the Trinity
How on earth – how on earth – can you picture the Trinity? Well, you can have a go at the Son – at least he becomes incarnate in the man Jesus. But what about the Father and the Holy Spirit? Perhaps an old man with a beard for the Father, and a dove for the Spirit? That’s been the tradition in western art, the best of it quite sublime. But a dove lacks the personhood of the Holy Spirit, and while such imagery might tell us something about God’s work in creation and redemption – God as God reveals Godself to us – it tells us virtually nothing about God as God is in Godself.
Any other possibilities? Well, there is the venerable tradition of biblical interpretation known as typology, which rereads the story of Israel to hear echoes of the story of Jesus. It sees connections between persons, events and themes in the Old Testament and persons, events and themes in the New Testament. For example, in Romans 5, Paul writes of Adam as ‘a figure of the one who is to come’, namely Christ, the second Adam.
Consider this icon painted in the 14th century by Andrei Rublev, a monk at the monastery of Zagorsk, near Moscow. It’s called The Hospitality of Abraham, based as it is on the story in Genesis 18 about the three mysterious figures entertained by Abraham and Sarah who announce to them the birth of Isaac. But its more common name is The Trinity. I reckon you could call it God’s Selfie.
The tale in Genesis is certainly strange, full of suggestive ambiguity. Are there really three visitors, or only one? The text jumps between both possibilities. And who are these travellers? Are they human, angelic, divine? Certainly they bring the promise of the miraculous birth of a child. You can see how the story resonates with trinitarian themes. Perhaps, then, you can understand why it became the basis of attempts by Eastern Orthodox Christians to create a compelling visual aid to help us understand and worship God as Trinity….
Kim Fabricius is a retired church minister
This is an extract from an article that was first published in the May 2018 edition of Reform