A message from Father Nick 39

A glimpse of heaven on earth (II)

            The name of Andrei Rublev is less familiar to us than that of Fra Angelico, though their lifetimes overlapped and both made paintings of immense spiritual beauty. They worked in different traditions – as Western art became more naturalistic (indeed “humanistic”) Eastern art seems to have become increasingly suffused with heavenly radiance. Andrei Rublev was born in Russia around the year 1370 and grew up in the Orthodox tradition.

He became a monk and an icon painter – the word “icon” means of course, image, picture or likeness. Constantinople/Byzantium had attracted artists and craftsmen from many places and the earliest icons we know come from the sixth century. These were not just holy pictures. They were painted on carefully chosen wood by persons who fasted and prayed and they were seen as having a kind of sacramental quality.

Andrei Rublev is regarded as the greatest mediaeval Russian painter. His best known work is his icon of the Blessed Trinity. This portrays the three angels who visited Abraham in the book of Genesis and promised him that his wife Sarah would bear him a son: Isaac. In an icon, every detail counts. Here are just a few such details:

The three figures are contained in a circle –  “the movement of the icon begins with the left foot of the angel on the right, follows the inclination of the head, passes to the centre angel, carrying irresistibly with it the cosmos, rock and tree – resolving itself in the upright position of the left angel, in whom it comes to rest… Besides this circular movement, whose fulfilment commands all the rest as eternity commands time, the vertical of the temple and the sceptres express the longing of the earthly for the heavenly.”

A perfect continuity of love is shown in the inclination of the three figures’ heads towards each other. The Father has the central place. Behind him and possibly rooted in him, is the tree of life. Only the Father’s feet are not shown – by contrast, Son and Holy Spirit have been “sent” into the world.

Christ sits at the Father’s right. Behind him, almost growing from him (certainly the merging of the halo with the structure indicates some kind of affinity) is the structure of a church – it seems capacious, lofty. The face of Christ seems to bear a look of acceptance. His robe, rose-hued, may suggest the encounter with suffering. The hands, not pointing like the other two figures, seem accepting, capable, the hands of a shepherd fashioner.

            “The figure at the Father’s left represents the Holy Spirit. Behind him…is a blurred suggestion of chaos, cliffs, disorder. This probably indicates that the function of the Spirit is to bring order to our disturbed vision: e.g. at baptism the chaos of Original Sin is eradicated by the new life of the Spirit. This figure too points its finger towards the table, and like that of the central person, the eyes seem to focus on Christ…”

In other words, there is as much to make us think as there is to move us by the icon’s sheer beauty. Such is the way of Orthodoxy.