Culture and Arts

Rublev’s Trinity: Sacred Image or Cultural Heritage?

Published on: August 18, 2023
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The Trinity by Andrei Rublev is undoubtedly the most famous Russian icon. Its reproductions can be found in various churches all over the world, not only in Orthodox churches but also in Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopalian. Even if an intelligent person is not interested in icon painting, he or she knows The Trinity. What is the enigma behind this icon’s widespread recognition and popularity?

The Trinity has never been particularly venerated or considered a miracle-working icon in the Russian Orthodox Church. In the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, where it was placed until the 1917 revolution, pilgrims came to venerate the relics of St. Sergius of Radonezh while passing by the icon. Surprisingly, the icon achieved popularity during the Soviet era, thanks exclusively to secular specialists: restorers, art historians, and artists.

From secular studies, we know that The Trinity was painted in the early 15th century by the iconographer Andrei Rublev in connection with the construction of the Trinity Cathedral of the Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery. The icon was first mentioned in the contribution books of the monastery in 1639, then in 1673. These books, in turn, refer to older records from 1574 to1575. They testify that the icon was in the local row of the iconostasis of the Trinity Cathedral, in the traditional place for local patron icons for centuries. And up to the beginning of the 20th century, the icon did not leave its place.

The name of the author of The Trinity, Andrei Rublev, was well known to his contemporaries. It is mentioned in the annals of the 15th century in connection with the master’s works in the Moscow Kremlin and in Vladimir, but the annals say nothing about The Trinity. At the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, Joseph Volotsky began collecting icons by Rublev, distinguishing him from other iconographers. But what these icons were, it is not known. Rublev’s Trinity icon is mentioned for the first time in the decisions of the Stoglav Council (1551), which decreed that the image of the Holy Trinity should be represented as Rublev had done and not otherwise. Thus, the Fathers of the Council noted that the value of the icon lies in its theology, in the way Rublev conveyed the mystery of the Divine Trinity in colors. The Trinity icon is also described in the 17th-century manuscript Legend of the Holy Icon Painters. Its author specifies that Andrei Rublev painted The Trinity at the request of hegumen Nikon “in praise of his father, Sergius of Radonezh.”

Secular researchers gathered these pieces of evidence, and thanks to the restorers, we can see the icon’s beauty. By the way, the restoration of the icon was also initiated by secular specialists, not the church. In 1904, at the request of Ilya Ostroukhov, an artist and collector, the restorer and iconographer Vasily Guryanov was invited to Lavra to clean The Trinity from later writings.

Ancient icons were covered with olifa varnish, which turned black over time. They were renewed, rewritten, and covered with frames. This was the case with The Trinity; it was renewed several times. In this form—rewritten, darkened, covered with a frame—The Trinity stood for several centuries without attracting attention. Only the early 20th-century restoration of the icon made it possible to see its true colors. But even the first trial unveiling of the icon frightened the church. When Guryanov removed the frame, brushed off the dark olifa, and opened a small fragment in the upper right corner of the icon, the painting became visible. As he wrote: suddenly, instead of dark “smoky” colors opened bright colors, just “paradise.” Guryanov did not reach the author’s layer, but even partial disclosure caused a sensation. Secular experts rushed to the Lavra to see the “authentic Rublev.” However, the vicar of the Lavra was frightened, stopped the restoration, and ordered the icon to be covered again with a frame. So The Trinity returned to its usual place in the iconostasis inside the rather dark church and stood there for another sixteen years. Only in 1918, when the Soviet authorities closed the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, was the icon moved to the restoration workshops, and the restorers began its cleaning in earnest. The restoration of the icon took place in two stages, from 1918 to 1926, and today we can see the author’s painting, albeit with some rather significant losses.

The uncovering of The Trinity allowed researchers to study it, along with the entire heritage of Andrei Rublev. The most authoritative specialists wrote about this icon: N.A. Demina, V.N. Lazarev, V.N. Sergeyev, G.V. Popov, E.S. Smirnova, and others. Probably no other icon has had so much written about it, thanks to which The Trinity has become recognized worldwide. Foreign specialists Konrad Onasch, Henri Nouwen, and Ludolf Müller added much to what was written about this icon. And to date, the historiography of The Trinity amounts to a dozen weighty volumes.

The studies of The Trinity were conducted at a difficult time. The Soviet Union professed “scientific atheism,” the study of ancient Russian heritage was not welcomed, and publications were subjected to the harshest censorship. For example, in Soviet publications, one could not write “Orthodox icon” but only “masterpiece of ancient Russian painting.” All monographs had to begin with quotations from the classics of Marxism-Leninism, whatever the topic of the scientific work. Alexei Losev, the greatest Russian philosopher, jokingly called this “ritual self-abasement.” Naturally, no one even dared to write about the theological meaning of the Trinity icon; though the priest Pavel Florensky, one of the discoverers of the icon in the early 20th century, did write about the icon as a revelation and the brightest proof of the existence of God: “There is the ‘Trinity,’ so there is God.” This maxim of his was widely known. But such a view of Rublev’s creation was unacceptable for the Soviet era, and therefore, art historians were left to deal only with the iconography, the history of painting, and aesthetic analysis of the icon. The popularity of The Trinity was increased by the studies of academician Boris Rauschenbach, one of the founders of Soviet cosmonautics, who wrote about the phenomenon of reverse perspective and problems of space.

Soviet scientists knew how to circumvent many of the obstacles of censorship, and sometimes quite cleverly. For example, in 1947, on the wave of the postwar patriotic upsurge, Stalin issued a decree on the organization of the Andrei Rublev Museum of Ancient Russian Culture. But the years passed, and the museum remained in existence only on paper. Then, in 1960, at the suggestion of Soviet art historians and their Western colleagues, UNESCO declared the World Year of Andrei Rublev. And this contributed to the opening of the Rublev Museum in Moscow and at the same time to the growth of international interest in the Trinity icon.

As is well known, cinema was the primary type of art in the Soviet Union, and it was in the secular context that cinema played a massive role in popularizing The Trinity. In 1971, Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublev was released on the screens of the country, in the finale of which, after gloomy black-and-white shots of the harsh life in the times of the Tatar-Mongol yoke and princely feuds, bright color images appear on the screen: icons of the Savior, Archangel Michael and, of course, the Trinity. This produced a stunning effect, and millions learned about Rublev’s masterpiece.

Undoubtedly, the Trinity phenomenon is, first of all, cultural. And its fame is worldwide. The icon belongs to world art and is among the first row of cultural artifacts. The church did not participate in the creation or construction of this phenomenon, if not to count the fact of writing the icon. But according to the basics of the teaching on the veneration of icons, Orthodox Christians venerate “not the board and the colors, but the one who is written on the board with colors.” And that is why after The Trinity was transferred to the museum, a copy written by the restorer N. Baranov was put in its place. By the way, in the local row of the iconostasis of the Trinity Cathedral, there was already a copy, a replica of Godunov’s time. And this was quite enough for the church, because for the church consciousness, veneration of the original and the copy is no different. From the icons of ancient saints, the church often made copies and exhibited them for liturgical veneration. Even when the originals disappeared, the image was preserved in the copies, and the glory of miracle-working icons was transferred to them. But for culture, it is the board and colors, the original of the master; that is why restorers, art critics, and, above all, the keepers of the Tretyakov Gallery, where the icon was preserved for many decades, treat the ancient icon so reverently.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and with it its atheistic ideology, new times came. Yesterday’s Soviet people changed into new clothes and declared they were Orthodox. In the early ’90s, there was talk of restitution, the return of church property, especially icons. From the Soviet past, the Orthodox remembered that there were great names of icon painters and significant objects of reverence that ended up in museums. One of them, until recently, was Rublev’s Trinity.

On May 15, 2023, the Russian Orthodox Church suddenly announced that The Trinity would be returned to the church by the Russian Federation President’s decision. At the same time, Patriarch Kirill stated that he did not want to permanently remove the icon from the Tretyakov Gallery and asked to give it only temporarily. However, Putin decided to give the icon for unlimited time, reportedly “in response to numerous requests from Orthodox believers.” On the eve of the Feast of the Pentecost, the icon was taken out of the Tretyakov Gallery, despite the unfavorable decision of the Restoration Council, and it was put on display in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Then, as stated in official documents of the Russian Orthodox Church, “The icon will return to its place for which it was written, that is, in the Trinity Cathedral of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra.”

There is no doubt that this threatens to destroy the icon. The museum community, restorers, and art historians are sounding the alarm because the Trinity icon was already taken to the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra last year for a few days, and after that, the restorers found 61 damages to the board, soil, and paint layer. But the church seems to care little about this. The result is a paradoxical picture: it turns out that the icon of the Trinity is more valuable not to the church, which honors it as a sacred image, but to secular society, which sees it as a unique artifact of cultural heritage.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

About author

  • Irina Yazykova

    Irina Yazykova

    Art Historian at St. Andrew's Biblical and Theological Institute (Moscow)

    Dr. Irina Yazykova is an art historian, a specialist in the theology of the image and contemporary Christian art, and director of St. Andrew's Biblical and Theological Institute in Moscow. Previously she lectured at the Archpriest Alexander Men's Open Orthodox University, Kolomna Theological Seminar...

    Read author's full bio and see articles by this author

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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