“A unity worshipped in Trinity and a Trinity summed up into unity”

Yes, let no one be lost, but let us all abide in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, being in full accord and of one mind armed with the shield of faith, loins girded about with truth, acknowledging one war alone, that against the Devil and his minions, fearing not those who can kill the body but cannot take the soul, but fearing the Lord of both soul and body; guarding the truth that we have received from our fathers, reverencing Father and Son and Holy Spirit; knowing the Father in the Son, the Son in the Holy Spirit, in which names we have been baptized, in which we believe, and under which we have been enlisted, dividing them before combining them and combining them before dividing them, and not regarding the three as a single individual (for they are not without individual reality nor do they comprise a single reality, as though our treasure lay in names and not in actual fact), but rather believing the three to be a single entity. For they are a single entity not in individual reality but in divinity, a unity worshipped in Trinity and a Trinity summed up into unity, venerable as one whole, as one whole royal, sharing the same throne, sharing the same glory, above space, above time, uncreated, invisible, impalpable, uncircumscribed, its internal ordering known only to itself, but for us equally the object of reverence and adoration, and alone taking possession of the Holy of Holies and excluding all of creation, part by the first veil, and part by the second. The first veil separates the heavenly and angelic realms from the Godhead, and the second, our world from that of the heavens.

St Gregory of Nazianzus

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8 Responses to “A unity worshipped in Trinity and a Trinity summed up into unity”

  1. All true, but the heretical picture of three gods, quaint as it is, seems contradictory!


    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      Well, if you are going to be pedantic, any picture would still be heretical however God were portrayed, since even a single image would show God as having limbs and complex parts and also, by including background, show the universe existing independently around and outside God. The picture illustrates God as Trinity, not the whole of God as he is: that would be impossible.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I was wondering if someone would raise the question of heresy. Quite honestly, John, I find the objection silly, despite the 1666 decrees of the Great Synod of Moscow. Does any Christian believe that images such as these depict three deities, or that the many icons of the New Testament Trinity, both before and after the 17th century, violate the second commandment? No, of course not. We continue to venerate the Kursk Root icon despite its visual representation of God the Father. Even Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity had its detractors because of its abstraction from the Old Testament story of Abraham. Iconographers after 1666 simply ignored the synod’s directives and continued to paint the Trinity from the depth of their simple faith.

      The trinitarian image I have posted bespeaks a “quaintness” of faith that I find genuine and authentic. I suggest that we relax and allow it to edify us.


    • i guess you guys may not have understood very well how the icon of the Trinity functions within the Orthodox tradition. The icon of the Trinity is _absolutely not_ an “image of God”. To attempt such an image at all would be an act of idolatry on the face of it! How could we even imagine such a thing!

      Rather, the Orthodox icon of the Trinity is a depiction in form and color of the Church’s dogmatic _*theology*_ of the Trinity, taking as its starting point the episode of the Hospitality of Abraham in Genesis. There are other images of the Trinity, for example those of the Theophany and the Transfiguration, but that of the Hospitality of Abraham emerged historically as the primary depiction of the theology of the Trinity _as such_— that is, not in respect of an event in Christ’s life. Rublev’s achievement, recognized and even canonized by the 1666 council, was not that he somehow came up with a “perfect image of God” but that he managed to perfect, in form and color, the fullest possible statement of the Church’s _teaching_ with regard to God-in-Trinity.

      Not an image of the _Trinity itself,_ but an image of the _theology_ of the Trinity— this is a really, _really_ important distinction!

      To be honest, the theology of the quaint image you’ve posted here is not as bad as some— in fact it seems to be making some attempt to depict Orthodox theology in an somewhat interesting but finally inadequate way. Three different “entities”, to use the translation of the Nazianzen you posted above, seem to be united in creating and sustaining the world (they’re all holding the globe of creation in common). This is true theology as far as it goes, but it doesn’t make any attempt to show their intra-trinitarian relations, nor that the Father creates _through_ the Son, and sanctifies by the Spirit who proceeds through the Son. Moreover, on an _intra_-trinitarian level, there is no attempt to show that the One Father begets the Son and breathes forth the Spirit; this image just lines up its three “entities” in a row, with no differentiation, and suggests that they all somehow jointly (create and) uphold the world. It’s not quite clear how this differs from tri-theism, but maybe we should expect too much from the “quaint” faith of a fairly unschooled artist.

      And it could be worse, of course— we’ve all seen those monstrous, or rather, Hindu-like depictions generated during the Age of Englightenment that feature one head with three faces, or one body with three heads, etc. This is actually what i thought was depicted here because the placement of the hands is a little confusing and the three “entities” seem to be wrapped in one cloak and they have only two sets of legs, not three; but on closer inspection i see that it apparently just shows three guys in a row.

      We can contrast this with Rublev’s Trinity, with two caveats. The first is, as i said, that the Orthodox icon of the Trinity is a depiction of the Church’s _*theology*_ of the Trinity, taking as its starting point the episode of the Hospitality of Abraham in Genesis. It is not an attempt to “picture God” himself.

      The second caveat is that Rublev’s Trinity is generally and surprisingly misread even by those who really ought to know better (Evdokimov, Ouspensky, and Bunge, i’m looking at you!) We must take as our starting point the central figure, if only because our eye is drawn first to it. The tree behind him identifies this central figure as representing the Son— note that the leaves on the tree even have somewhat the shape of a man on a _cross_, and the “tree” in Orthodox hymnography and iconography generally signifies the Cross in any case; and note also the red (blood, earthly) and blue (heavenly) garments. This figure is clearly meant to represent the “Son”— but notice he is not depicted as Jesus Christ, with a cruciform halo; this is an icon of the Trinity, not of the Incarnation.

      Now, recognizing that a cardinal rule of iconography is that it _must_ be _faithful to the Scriptures_— we are forced to conclude that the figure on the _right_ (not the left or the center, as popularly supposed) represents the _Father,_ for the Son “sits at the right hand of the Father”, never on his left. Frankly, it’s _odd_ that nobody ever seems to have even considered this. They always argue over whether the Angel on the left or in the center is the “Father”. It’s neither. The Son sits at the right hand of the Father.

      Note that i said that the figure on the right _represents_ the Father; it does not “depict” him— for “no one has seen God at any time” (John 1.18). The figure on the right _represents_ the Father in accordance with the _theology of the Creed,_ for we believe in One God, the Father Almighty, _Creator of heaven and earth_, and this figure is clothed in blue (heaven) and green (creation, but not the red of blood, soil, and incarnation). He also sits in front of a mountain, as El Elyon, “God Most High”.

      Once we see this, the _dynamics_ of the image become clear, and this is what makes Rublev’s painting so remarkable. The “Father” inclines his head to the Son, and the Son inclines his head to the figure on the left— who of course would be the Spirit— who sits, clothed in garments of heaven and of fire or light, before a building (the “Church”), inclining his head to the “Father”. Father—Son—Spirit—Father— it’s a circle. Moreover, as all commentators point out, the geometric basis of the composition is a circle, and the glances of the three Persons as Rublev has ordered them enforce and reveal this circularity as an image of the divine, intra-trinitarian Life. And of course it’s not the least dimension of Rublev’s achievement to suggest the “perichoresis” of Father, Son, and Spirit with such endless calm, humble, and peaceful majesty.

      For the rest, the shape of the Table, as defined by the legs of the figures on the right and the left, imitates that of the Chalice which rests on top of it. The Table is an altar, and an altar is a place of Sacrifice. Accordingly, the Son blesses the Chalice and seems to slide it forward towards the viewer, in accordance with the Scriptures— “And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it, and he said unto them, This is my blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for many” (Mk 14.23-24). The Eucharist is our own entry point into the Life of the Trinity. But not only does the shape of the Table imitate that of the Chalice, but also the outline from shoulder to foot of the Angels on the right and the left also conforms to this chalice-like shape, so that the “Son” himself is manifest as the content of a Chalice, which is nothing other than the Trinitarian Life itself, offered to us. It’s quite remarkable to show the Trinitarian Life as a Chalice!

      It’s also quite striking that in Rublev’s depiction, the “Father”, the “Most High”, is actually slightly _lower_ than the other two figures; the “Most High” is actually the _Most Humble_. That is an _astonishing_ insight, and I would say it goes to the very _essence_ of Orthodoxy!

      So i don’t think i’m being “pedantic”, Iain Lovejoy. It’s true that “any picture would still be heretical however God were portrayed” if we were making any attempt at all to portray God. But can we imagine that the Orthodox iconographic tradition had never read John 1.18 (“no one has seen God at any time”)? Orthodoxy _never_ attempts to portray God, but it does clearly state, in both _word_ and _image_, a theology of God; and it shows the universe in relation to God.

      And Fr Aidan, i agree— it’s quite unlikely that any Christian with even a little maturity has ever thought that “images such as these depict three deities, or that the many icons of the New Testament Trinity, both before and after the 17th century, violate the second commandment”. But that’s not my point, and forgive me; i think we need to go a little deeper. I do think that every such image represents the artist’s understanding of the (theology of the) Trinity, and some are closer to the Church’s experience— and others, a lot _less_ so, even when they’re not _particularly_ wrong! And some are just _wrong!_

      But in discussing the particular image you posted above, I do take back my comment that it’s “heretical”, for as i said, upon looking at it more closely, i realize that it’s not a version of the “Hinduistic” type, as i first thought.

      But to depict the (theology of the) Trinity, it’s not enough to just put three guys in a row, holding up a globe. And when we see such imagery, charming as it is, we do still need to understand _exactly why it’s inadequate._

      To be sure, we can let the “quaintness” of the artist’s faith charm and edify us, insofar as it’s “genuine and authentic”— i can appreciate this, as you do— for “quaint”, after all, is a kind of “cute”. But— call me pedantic or not— i think we live in a time when we really need to recapture and be fully aware of what the canonical iconographers— Rublev above all!— were doing when they set out to paint the Hospitality of Abraham / Divine Trinity. They were _not_ trying to depict God, but striving to depict accurately the _Church’s ownmost experience_ of God, as expressed in Scripture, Creed, and Dogma. It is _our_ failing that we haven’t understood this. It is our failing that we ever even think that they were _trying_ to depict God at all. It shows that we really haven’t understand yet what an icon is.


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        John, all very interesting … but irrelevant. The image in question belongs to the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition, of which it is representative. Clearly the Ethiopian Orthodox do not see themselves bound to your understanding, or even the Eastern Orthodox understanding (if there even is a single Eastern Orthodox understanding), of icons. You really need to give the Spirit a bit more freedom to move as he wills.

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        • i would never have guessed that was an ethiopian icon! (figures are too white). I had guessed maybe Central European village tradition.

          as i said, we can appreciate the charming naiveté of this image for what it is— but it’s not a depiction of Orthodox trinitarian dogma. “Oriental” Orthodox iconography never developed as far as it did in the Byzantine tradition.

          But yes, there is a single Eastern Orthodox understanding of the Trinity. Most of the time, it’s referred to by the name of Nicea, and the “Oriental” Orthodox do all see themselves as bound by it.


  2. [sorry, i thought those underscores would result in italics. If i could edit, i would.]


  3. Herb Garfield says:

    a meditation on the love relationship of the most holy trinity puts me in mind of the best seller the shack and the film which thereafter ensued Paul Young. Trinity Sunday


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