Using icons as an aid to Christian devotional meditation is far from standard spiritual practice in the Western church. It was, however, central to the worship of the early Christian church, and has remained so within the Orthodox tradition.
The English word icon is derived from the Greek eikon, meaning image. Icons are a symbolic imaging of spiritual truths that are not well represented in words. They depict a divine, spiritual reality and offer a sacred space—a place where the worshipper can enter the heavenly realm through contemplation. Icons are prayer, not simply art.
My own interest in icons developed over many years of yearning for mystery and beauty in worship. Like many Protestants, I was raised to view icons with suspicion—seeing them as closer to idol worship than aids to worship. However, the more time I spent prayerfully meditating on Scripture with the aid of icons, the more they opened up new windows of insight into spiritual realities. They transformed what had been a rational worship into a personal engagement with God. They served to unite my head and my heart and allowed me to bring my whole self, including my senses, to the God who wants every part of me.
Icons have been called “doors to Paradise” because they help us see God with the eyes of our heart. They speak to our inner senses and allow us “access through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible.”1 Spending time in quiet contemplation before them, we encounter God in much the same way as we do by means of contemplation on Scripture.
Painted by the Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev, the Icon of the Trinity was created around the year ad 1425. It was my introduction to icons, and has become my favorite, speaking powerfully to me of the profound spiritual truths of the Trinity. Attempting to circumvent the biblical prohibition against visual depictions of God, Rublev uses the biblical story of Abraham and his three angelic visitors to depict the triune Christian God.
In the Old Testament account, Abraham is visited by three men at the oaks of Mamre. He invites them to stay and share a meal with him, after which they disclose to him the astounding news that he and his wife Sarah would have a son in their old age. This son was to be the fulfillment of God’s earlier promise to Abraham that in him “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”2
Let us now turn to the Icon of the Holy Trinity and explore the depths of spiritual truth that it presents. Spend some time looking carefully at it. Refer to it regularly as we proceed, pausing frequently for prayerful reflection. If you have access to a computer and color printer, you may find it helpful to download a reproduction from the Web to facilitate viewing.
In Rublev’s meditation on the Genesis passage, the three male visitors become the three persons of the Trinity seated at a table sharing a meal and conversation. I would like to invite you to join them at this table. To do so is to contemplate the Christian Trinitarian God. In a world where the frantic pace of life bombards our inner senses with noise and commercial images, there is little space left for silence and quiet gazing on the face of God. This exercise is a way to safeguard that inner space and keep our eyes fixed on the beauty of the Lord. Contemplation is an exercise that I like to describe as “wasting time gracefully.” Join me in wasting some time with God. Take time to meet him in this icon, to gaze, to be enticed into a deeper awareness of God, and to reflectively consider the implications of this encounter.
What overall impression does the icon make on you? In my first viewing, I was immediately struck by the light which seemed to shimmer and radiate from somewhere deep within the icon. It spoke to me of the divine brilliance that streams from the Godhead—”the unapproachable light”3—before which many in the Bible had to shield their eyes. I was reminded of the holy ground where Moses encountered God, a space which we are now being invited to enter.
Rublev depicts the Trinity in three monumental figures, each with a supernatural luminosity and radiance. How do we know that these are no ordinary beings? We recognize their origin from their golden wings and their dazzling haloes. Although they are solid, corporeal forms, they cast no shadows. This is a gathering of celestial personages. They have about them an aura of incredible stillness while at the same time communicating with their eyes, heads, and hands. The silence holds us in its thrall as we look intently into this ethereal scene. It is a stillness that pulls us into the work and upward into the presence of a transcendent God.
Observe the three figures. They appear to be identical. Yet a closer look reveals some important symbolic differences. Their bodies, heads, faces, and wings are the same. The almost melancholic, intense way they look at each other is identical. Each holds a long, thin rod of authority and protection in his left hand. They each wear similar robes, one inner and one outer, with blue a shared color between them. But here the similarity ends. The nature of each person of this Trinity can be determined by paying close attention to the colors of their clothing and to their relative positions.
Creating icons is a long and painstaking prayer process. Even before beginning to paint, the iconographer must spend an extended period of time in prayer and fasting. This is where he or she gets personally acquainted with the subject of the icon, later translating this heart-knowledge into image. The well-aged wood surface that will bear the image must also be prepared with several layers of white plaster which are applied and then sanded to a perfectly smooth finish. Next, gold leaf is applied and burnished. Finally, after tracing the design on the surface, the actual painting begins. The traditional method involves adding pigments from ground minerals and other natural color sources to a mixture of egg yolk and water. Dark colors are added first, followed by light and finally by gold or white highlights. This is followed by several weeks of drying, after which the icon is varnished. The final step is the blessing of the icon by a priest.
Starting with the figure farthest to the left, we see the Father who wears an inner robe of blue. This is the color of divinity, mystery, and of heaven. He is God Almighty, the Eternal One, holy and righteous, who sits on his everlasting throne, clothed with majesty and girded with strength. His outer garment is a shimmering gold, symbolic of his kingship, authority, and divine creative energy. Even though the golden light beams from the whole icon, the Father is clothed entirely in this heavenly light. Behind and through this light his divine nature translucently appears. Scripture tells us that God is Light—the Father of lights in whom there is no darkness. Such light makes me want simply to sit before the Father and bask in his warmth and love. The first and last verses of the hymn by Frederick Faber beautifully capture this aspect of the Father and our response to such brilliance:
My God, how wonderful
Thy majesty how bright!
How beautiful thy mercy seat,
In depths of burning light!
Father of Jesus, Love’s reward,
What rapture that would be,
Content before thy face to lie,
And gaze and gaze on thee!4
Look now at the building behind the Father. It represents the house of Abraham and Sarah, but it becomes for us a symbol of the promised heavenly mansions prepared by God. The roof of this house is golden, and above it stands a high tower. From here the Father can stand and watch patiently and endlessly for the return of his prodigal children. The open doors—eternally open—reflect God’s readiness to welcome us.
This house is also a reminder of the buildings of the New Jerusalem in which there will be no more darkness or tears, but only the light and joy of his eternal presence. The unapproachable has become approachable. This is a Person in whose warm and glowing presence we can safely bask. In this light we experience the Father’s love and grace. His right hand is raised in blessing and points to the chalice on the table and toward the person in the middle, the one who has made it possible for us to enter boldly into the Father’s radiant presence. We are reminded of God’s words at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”5
The second person of the Trinity—Jesus—sits in the middle of the icon, draped in robes of reddish brown and blue. Again, the blue speaks of his divinity while the brown, the color of earth, points to his humanity. This identifies Jesus as the one who is both fully God and fully Man. He is God incarnate, “the Word [who] became flesh, and dwelt among us…the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”6
The icon, not usually signed by the artist, is intended to glorify God, not the artist. There is no room for freedom of personal expression or originality within this rule-bound art. The artist chooses the subject, which is then depicted according to traditional composition and style. The goal is to help the one who uses the icon as a prayer aid to see the presence of Christ with the eyes of the heart. They are theology written in images and color.
Notice his blue outer robe. Symbolizing his heavenly nature, it is worn more loosely than that of the other two figures, loosely enough to suggest that it could be easily shed when taking on human flesh. Paul’s letter to the Philippians describes the depths of his descent, his divesting of himself of divine prerogatives, to redeem humankind: “He existed in the form of God . . . emptied himself . . . made in the likeness of men . . . found in the appearance of a man, he humbled himself.”7 His inner cloak is emblazoned with the gold stripe of his kingship over his right shoulder (“the government will rest on his shoulders.”8)
Behind Jesus is a tree, the oak of Mamre under which Abraham’s visitors sat. It turns our thoughts to Jesus as Cocreator with God the Father. We remember the newly created trees of the Garden of Eden under which Adam and Eve met with their Creator for communion. We are led to consider this tree as the one on which Christ, the New Adam, died for us. It was an ugly and cruel tree to which he was nailed, a reason to examine the seriousness of our sin, which led him to such a death.
However, the dark green leaves of this tree also remind us of the resurrection and cause us to look forward to the Tree of Life described in Revelation, a tree that will bear fruit for the healing of the nations. This is no longer a dark, dead tree but a green tree that is alive and supple as it bends toward Jesus in acknowledgement of his Lordship. His right hand, like the Father’s, gestures in blessing and points towards the chalice on the table to which we shall return later. His gesture, also directed further to the right, causes us to shift our focus to the third figure in this scene.
The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, is seated on the right of the icon. His divine nature is shown in the blue of his inner robe. His outer garment is a fresh spring green, suggestive of fertility, new life and birth. In the beginning, the Spirit was involved with the Father and the Son in the creation of the world, bringing life and growth. He is the Spirit proclaimed by the Old Testament prophets who will cause us to come to life and will remove our heart of stone, giving us instead a heart of flesh. He is also the promised Comforter, who is not only with us but who makes his home within us so that we become temples of the living God.
The Spirit points us to the Father and the Son, guiding us toward and into all truth. Behind him is a mountain, also bowing inwards toward Christ and the Father. Encounters with the divine were traditionally thought to occur on mountain tops. It was the place where Abraham journeyed to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice. What deep sadness and confusion must have filled his heart that day. Imagine God’s sorrow and tears at delivering his Son to our world on the hill of Golgotha. Both Jesus and the Spirit incline their heads toward the Father, the Source of all, yet each person of the Trinity wields equal authority and power.
Look now at the center of the painting, toward the chalice on the white table. Abraham prepared a meal for his heavenly visitors and set it before them to eat. Rublev transforms this simple meal into a heavenly feast. The chalice seems very important. It is central: all hands point to it, and it is highlighted by the brilliant white of the table’s surface. What could it represent?
Placing this chalice immediately in front of Jesus suggests that it represents the wine and bread of the Eucharist. Jesus miraculously offers his body and blood at the table that is spread for us. This is the cup of the new covenant in his blood. It is the blood of the Paschal Lamb which cleanses us and frees us from sin. I cannot participate in the Eucharist celebration without this image resurfacing vividly into my awareness. The reality of the presence of the Trinity in this sacrament and of being a part of this divine mystery is almost too deep for words.
White, a symbol of purity and found here against the red contents of the cup, points to our sins being washed white by Jesus’ blood. How is this made possible? How does the artist convey this? Look at the stem of the goblet and the fingers of the Spirit as they point downward and move our gaze to the open oblong space beneath. Could this represent the tomb in which Jesus was buried and from which he rose? Now there is no stone barring the way because he is no longer in this tomb. Death is conquered and has lost its sting so the opening is represented as small and insignificant in relation to the other images portrayed. The opening is also evocative of the narrow road that leads to eternal life, the road of suffering and death to sinful self. We get a hint here that the other members of the Trinity participated in the death of Jesus. The icon links our suffering with theirs. We are given the hope and comfort of knowing that when we suffer, God suffers—and that he is with us in our suffering.
Often appearing to Western eyes as devoid of drama and movement, the iconographer renders faces and figures without expression. This is done to encourage contemplative engagement rather than an excited emotional response. Icons express quiet inner spiritual virtues such as patience, suffering, purity, or love. The stillness and silence which emanate from the icon serve as an invitation to prayer, an invitation to an intimate encounter with the Resurrected Lord who himself sought silence and contemplation with his Father during his earthly ministry.
Two invisible geometric shapes serve to unite and harmonize all the elements of this icon. The first is a circle within which all three figures are contained (see Figure 19).
This complete, unbroken circle—symbolic of eternity, timelessness and perfection—tells us of the perfect unity and love within the Godhead. This is a relationship without hierarchy, possessing only mutuality and equality. There is companionship, communication, and conversation in this circle. We see a slow, dignified, and gracious interaction within this intimate exchange. There is close connectedness in the glances and in the contact of their wings. Looking at the eyes of the figures and the inclinations of their heads, we see true community and fellowship as they speak the invisible language of love. We cannot hear the dialogue, but we know that it exists within the Trinity. What is truly amazing is that we are invited to participate in this heavenly conversation.
The open space in front of the table suggests to us that there is room for us at this feast. The circle is intact but not exclusive. We, along with all Christians, are included and offered a welcome here. There is room for all of us.
Look now at the thrones on either side of Jesus. There is an inverse perspective to the lines of the two chairs. Instead of the conventional receding perspective, the lines converge inward and forward toward the viewer, a compositional feature common to icons. Now imagine the icon placed at eye level on a wall before you and allow your eyes to continue the lines to their imaginary meeting point. See how they point downward and toward the heart of the worshipper. To emphasize this, the artist has strategically placed the feet of the two figures and their footrests on the same converging plane. The intention of this is to touch us in our heart, at our very depths, and to invite us to surrender to the love that is manifested in the Trinity. God yearns for the kind of intimate fellowship with us that he shares with the Son and the Spirit. That relationship, which was broken at the Fall, has now been restored through his Son. Mysteriously we are transported into the icon and given a place within this heavenly circle of love. The invitation is open to us and is forever extended to us to join in this close-knit communion.
How do we respond to this invitation? Do we accept the soul hospitality offered here? Or do we stand back out of fear and reluctance to be drawn into the mystery of the Godhead? On what basis do we have the right to take our place there? Further contemplation reveals the second hidden shape—that of a cross (see Figure 210).
The vertical beam of the cross can be seen by allowing your eyes to follow the line beginning at Jesus’ head and continuing to the point between the two pairs of feet. The horizontal beam is formed by tracing a line from the head of the Father to that of the Spirit. As we contemplate this icon, we discover that we stand at the foot of the cross. Jesus’ death on the cross provides the only access to the Father. His redemptive work is what has made it possible for us to stand here and to even dare to enter into the intimacy of the heavenly union. His arms once rigidly and painfully outstretched on the cross, are now free to be extended toward us and to embrace us in forgiveness and love. The tomb of death no longer holds him, and we are now allowed free access into God’s presence. When he redeemed us, he also called us into “the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death.”11 His cross becomes ours as we share in his suffering, death, and resurrection.
What a marvelous mystery that we can be a part of this drama of salvation! “Even when we were dead in sins, he has quickened us together with Christ (by grace you are saved) and has raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places with Christ Jesus.”12 When we pray to God, we are actually sitting with him in the heavenly places! We converse with the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and they with us. Prayer offers us the opportunity to move beyond our self-preoccupation because it places us in the midst of the Triune God, who rivets our attention and in whose presence we can only fall down and worship.
The further we go into this icon, the deeper we discover the mystery that is God. If we next follow the convergent lines at the base of the cross backward, away from the viewer and into the heart of the icon, we become aware of the ever-widening perspective of God’s grace, love, and person. When he invites us into fellowship with him, we are taken up to a realm that has no bounds. The Psalmist reminds us that God has set our feet in a large place. His kingdom has no end. See how the lines move outward and widen the further into the picture we look. This conveys a sense of broadening horizons, of infinity beyond our knowing. Although we may try to contain him, he is beyond our entire grasp.
The more we know about our Lord, the more we find we do not know. This is mystery indeed. This is a God who defies containment. Yet we can come boldly into this holy place of his presence because Jesus has opened the way for us. Catching a glimpse of the vastness of God is an invitation to clear a bigger space within ourselves for him. We need to open all aspects of our being to him in order that we be “filled up to all the fullness of God.”13 To be people who incarnate the living God, we need to surrender completely to his will and make space within us to contain him and reflect his image to the world.
Place yourself within this icon as one who has accepted the invitation to share in this divine conversation. Imagine how each person of the Trinity speaks or acts toward you. Look, listen, touch, and taste the divine mystery. Surrender all of yourself to the experience as you sit at the table and partake of this heavenly meal, experiencing the love that issues from the presence of God. Jesus’ words of invitation to his disciples on the Emmaus road were “Come and eat.” They are also his words of invitation to us.
George Herbert, the seventeenth-century English poet, expresses this invitation in the words of his poem, “Love”:
Love bade me welcome:
yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love,
observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered,
worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful?
Ah my dear, I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand,
and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them:
let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love,
who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down,
says Love, and taste the meat:
So I did sit and eat.14
What is your response to this invitation? What do you say to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who invite you to join them in this circle of love—to taste and see? With what sort of welcome are you received as you dare to accept their invitation?
Finally, how do we leave this icon? Prayerfully we have been held in the embrace of unconditional love. As we return to the daily round of our lives and come back to earth from the heavenly realms to which we have been transported, we realize that we have been gifted with a new divine perspective. We have acquired a greater awareness of the hidden spiritual realities that exist beyond our physical perception. From having spent time seated with the Trinity in the heavenly places, we can look at ourselves and others with new eyes of love and compassion.
Having been in the presence of the Father’s love, we experience our utter dependence upon him. In Jesus, we are welcomed, forgiven, and embraced. His wounds have brought healing and salvation. Jesus’ gift of the Spirit means that we have been given new life. We are immersed in his loving and everlasting presence and are set free to love as he loves and to be filled with his joy as we live for him.
Leaving this sacred space, we carry with us the eternal all-encompassing love of the Trinity. We leave with a greater awareness of God’s presence with us, and with greater desire to share that love with others. And we know that we live a fuller life because we, together with all believers, live it always beneath the cross of Jesus, within the eternal circle that binds the Godhead together.