Holy Trinity in Orthodox Iconography

According to the theological conception, Christianity is a monotheistic religion and its God manifests as the Trinity. Trinity and triads are known in almost all religions and philosophical systems and they, for the most part, correspond to hypostatic primordial forces, the manifestation of divine power, but, in depth, they are the physical organization of the human being. Analyzing the triads of ancient religions, it can be noticed that they explain the basic meaning of living levels, as well as a certain hierarchy of values: in Buddhists – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva (sacred, work, war); among the Egyptians – Ra, Ptah and Amon (mind, body, creation); at Kienza – The Great Triad (completion of the display).

The Christian philosophy of the trinity has its roots in the Egyptian triads, which began to form in the 13th century AD. They have existed before, but not so much developed in terms of absolute unity. Only Christianity has formed a triple conception on one solid, precise and complex model, which does not exist in any other theological system.

Holy Trinity (Abraham’s Hospitality), mosaic, St. Mary the Great, Rome, 5th century

The mystery of the Holy Trinity as an occasion for schism

The mystery of the Holy Trinity, in the Orthodox Church, is a fundamental issue that, in the overall sense, will forever remain unknown to the people. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are three independent hypostases that exist in a single form. They are inseparable in their essence, but they appear separately, not denying themselves, but proving their oneness and interpenetration. Each hypostasis is a unique way to contain the same meaning, to receive that meaning from other hypostases and to give it to other hypostases.

The mystery of the Holy Trinity, having always been the subject of theological debates, was, in 1054, one of the reasons for the schism of the Western Church. The Roman Church, under the influence of theological thought condemned at all Ecumenical Councils, accepted, around 1014, the change of the Creed. The difference was expressed in the nature of the Holy Spirit, essentially based on the teachings of St. Ambrose (340-397) and St. Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo. In the works “De Spiritus Sanctus” (Ambrose) and “De Trinitate” (Augustine), they stated that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The symbol of faith, accepted at the first two Ecumenical Councils (Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381) and confirmed at all subsequent councils, said that the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father. St. John of Damascus (676-749) explained this:

“The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father, because he proceeds from him. He is also the Spirit of the Son, but not in the sense that his being proceeds from the Son. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son, for there is only one cause: the Father” (De Fide 1). , 12).


Holy Trinity, Russian icon, Andrei Rublev, early 15th century

Abraham’s hospitality

The iconographic motif of the Holy Trinity, often called Abraham’s hospitality (Philoxenia), is based on an Old Testament story from the book of Genesis. The Lord, in the form of three strangers, appeared to Abraham in the plain of Mamre while he was sitting in front of the tent during the midday heat. Abraham recognized and accepted them and, while the strangers were resting, he and his wife Sara prepared bread, butter and milk, and then slaughtered the calf. Abraham set the table, and he himself retreated under the tree beside them and watched them eat (Gen. 18: 1-15).

The identity of the three alien angels has always fascinated theologians, being an excellent subject of discussion, the outcome of which can be illustrated by three main iconographic theories. Everyone agrees that the angel in the middle represents God the Father, because he is under the Mamre oak, a symbol of the tree of life and the source of creation.

According to one theory, the angel on our left represents the Son, because he is in front of the house, the personification of the Church. This thought is based on the words of St. Paul that the Church is the body of Christ (Eph. 1: 22-23 / Rev. 21:22) and it is the element that unites the whole universe in Christ and which, as the ultimate example, has Christ himself (Eph. 4, 12-13).

The angel on our right symbolizes the Holy Spirit, because he is at the foot of the rock. It is a mountain of ascension, ecstasy, transformation, a prophetic peak – a manifestation of the Holy Spirit who enlightens and spiritualizes the body.


Holy Trinity (Abraham’s hospitality), Greek icon, 16th century

Old Believer heritage

The second theory was told by the iconographer Nikolaj Grešni, which was told to him by his ancestors, iconographers and old believers. They also believe that God the Father is presented as the central angel based on the meaning of the tree of life. However, on our left, according to their interpretations, is the Holy Spirit, because the Church represents the temple of the Spirit. This can be explained by St. Luke’s saying that the Holy Spirit leads the Church (Acts 20, 28/13, 2) and that it inspires her, adds Luke’s teacher, St. Paul (1 Cor. 3, 16/6, 19/2 Cor. 6). , 16).

The son is on our right, at the foot of the mountain. The meaning of the rock extends to the Old Testament and the time of Moses. He struck the rock from which the water flowed, and the people could be watered (Ex. 17: 6), which, along with the words of Moses (Deut. 32: 4) and David (Ps. 18: 2), is a prefiguration. Christ-mountains and water-blood of the crucified Lord. Water is also a prefiguration of Christ’s Holy Mystery, which St. Paul emphasized: “And all wrote one drink spiritually; for they drank of the spiritual rock that followed them: and that rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10: 4).

In the autosemantic sense, in iconography, the colors of the rocks symbolize the earthly manifestation, and Christ was the earthly manifestation of the Holy Trinity. Also, the rock symbolizes suffering on the cross on the hill of Golgotha.

The ancestors of Nicholas the Sinner add one more reason, speaking of the figure of the Son reflected in the cup on the table. Today we find that proof on the famous Holy Trinity of Andrei Rublev. In the microphotographic analysis of the buttercup, the Holy figure can be seen, a reflection of the face of an angel on our right. It is the Eucharistic cup and in it it is a symbol of the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Christ and the salvation of mankind.


Holy Trinity (Fatherhood), Russian icon, Novgorod, 14th century

Andrei Rublev as a paradigm

There is also a third current that explains the central angel as the Son, but that theory belongs more to folklore. However, in iconography, until the beginning of the 15th century, a central angel with a cross halo, a sign strictly determined only for Christ, is sometimes found. Then, we meet the icons on which all three angels have that sign. However, at the Stoglav Council held in 1551 in tsarist Russia of Ivan the Terrible, it was decided that no angel should bear the sign of the cross and that the Holy Trinity of Andrei Rublev should be a paradigm in iconography.

Three angels sit around a table that symbolizes the altar, a table for the preparation of the Eucharistic sacrifice. It is mostly square in shape and very simply decorated. It can sometimes be in the shape of a Roman altar with an opening in the middle (fenestrella confešionis) or as a simple round table with a foot in the middle, sometimes covered with a tablecloth;

Sometimes, on the icons of the Holy Trinity, Abraham, Sarah and a servant slaughtering a calf are depicted, which can be understood as an allegory of merciful deeds – to welcome the traveler, to feed the hungry and to water the thirsty. Christ himself advised such behavior when he taught the apostles on the Mount of Olives (Matt. 25:35).


Holy Trinity (New Testament), Greek icon, Crete, 17th century

New Testament Trinity

There are also three other iconographic motifs of the Holy Trinity, which are quite rare in church painting. They are based more on the interpretation of the New Testament than on Old Testament events.

The Holy Trinity called Fatherhood depicts God the Father on the throne, on his lap Christ-Emmanuel, while the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, hovers between them. God the Father has the image of an old man (Antiquus Dieurim) which illustrates one vision of the prophet Daniel (Dan. 7: 9). This motif, known since the 12th century, was banned by the decision of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1667, because the Gospel says: “No one has ever seen God: the only begotten son who is in his arms, he announces him” (John 1:18). .

The second motif of the Holy Trinity depicts the adult Christ at the right hand of the Father (Dan. 7, 13 / Ps. 109, 1 / Mar. 14, 62) who represents the Elder of Dan, while the Holy Spirit hovers between them. This iconographic motif appeared at the same time as the Fatherland and depicted, above all, the Western manner, which was later accepted in Eastern iconography, first in Greece, and later in other Slovenian countries.

The third motif of the Holy Trinity, little known and little accepted in iconography, shows three heads coming out of one body or one head on which three positions can be seen – one forehead and two profiles. This variant, called Tricefal, has existed since the Romanesque period and, although it was banned by the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, it managed to survive until the 19th century.

All these motifs depicting the Holy Trinity existed in Eastern iconography, but Abraham’s hospitality, otherwise the oldest (5th century, mosaic in the Basilica of St. Mary the Great), was and remains the most popular. This motif owes its importance to theological significance, because it is, after all, the first complete Theophany in the biblical chronology.

Source: Balkan Magazin – Aktuelnosti by www.balkanmagazin.net.

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