The name ‘Andrei Rublev’ will be familiar here to most. It is a name that has become, in recent years, an international byword for the realm of mystical beauty that is the domain of the Orthodox Icon. Rublev’s fame was no-doubt catapulted beyond Russia through the French release of Andrei Tarkovsky’s cinematic masterpiece, Andrei Rublev, in the 1970s. It is a magnificent film, the basis of which is the life of Russia’s greatest medieval icon-painter. Part historical evocation, part poetic meditation, the film offers in its finale one of the most moving portrayals of a painting in cinematic history; a stunning sequence of montages, in full colour, of Rublev’s ‘Trinity’, Russia’s most famous icon, painted for the Troitsa Sergieva Lavra (the Trinity Sergius Monastery) between 1425-27.
I first saw this film as an art student in 1996. It was also my first encounter with Rublev’s icons, which immediately became for me, and have ever since been, an ideal of both aesthetic and spiritual beauty.
After many years the work of Rublev lead me, only just this year, to both the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow (Tretyakovskaya Gallereya) and to the Trinity Sergius Monastery (Troitsa Sergieva Lavra), located in Sergiev Posad, 70km north-east of the capital. It was an artistic pilgrimage which would have been extremely difficult during Tarkovsky’s time, even though the lavra, unlike the majority of monasteries in the Soviet Union, had been reopened in 1946, after 22 years of closure under Stalin. Upon its closure in 1924 its artistic treasures had been nationalized, and its lands and buildings requisitioned for use by the State.
Due to Stalinist policy Rublev’s masterpiece, the Trinity, along with other masterpieces by his hand, was housed in the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, where it has remained. And this is where I would like to begin a discussion of his work, which shall lead us before long to the Troitski Sobor – the Trinity Cathedral – located within the Troitsa Sergieva lavra – the Trinity Sergius Monastery.
The Tretyakov, located in the heart of Moscow, is a stunning gallery, both in terms of its collection and as a state-of-the-art facility. The jewel of its collection is found, without doubt, within the magnificent icon rooms. The first thing that struck me, on entering the Rublev gallery, was the scale of the icon panels. Between 1.5 and 2 meters in height, they are not the modest, portable icons familiar to the West.
Fig. 1. Tretyakov Deisis, School of Andrei Rublev.
Here we see a Deisis by the workshop of Andrei Rublev. It is a magnificent ensemble which takes up the entire end wall of the gallery. The impact, on walking into the room, is stunning. On either side of the enthroned Christ we see icons of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, with icons of the two Archangels, Mikhail and Gabriel, placed on the far ends.
In key Rublev is comparable to the Italian painter, Giotto Di Bondonne. The serenely earthed colours of his icons open ever so softly. The tonal and chromatic scale are high, meaning the base colours are typically already quite light. The vibrational effect is thus of light opening up into ever-more ineffable light. A detail from Rublev’s Trinity illustrates this very well. Here we see the blues of the sleeve rising from a mid-tone to a tinted white. And again in the Archangel Gabriel, rising from a mid-tone, vermillion base, to a neutral, apricot-white highlight.
Fig. 2 & 3. Detail of the Trinity / Archangel Gabriel
The serene harmony of Rublev’s work is as much a result of his monumental, yet graceful line and his clear, compositional balance as his colouring. Altogether his work marked a radical shift from the darker and more dramatic work of his influential teacher, Theophanes the Greek. Where we might consider the latter as embodying the fire and brimstone of the Old Testament, the former undoubtedly encapsulates a New Testament feel, where the news is ‘good’, and the Father both loving and forgiving.
Given the violent times Rublev lived in, his realization of such a serene vision is truly remarkable. And this is indeed one of the great themes of Tarkovsky’s film. The prominent philosopher-priest, Pavel Florensky, also wrote about this aspect of Rublev’s work. The following quote is taken from his book, The Trinity St Sergei Monastery and Russia, via Russiapedia:
What marvels and startles us in Rublev’s work is not the subject or the numeral “three” or a cup on the Communion table, but the fact that it shows us truly the Revelation beheld by Him. Under restless circumstances, in the midst of local wars, general savagery and the Tatar intervention, with this lack of peace that had depraved Rus, this infinite, indestructible peace of the world opened to the eye… And this inexplicable world, this incomparable sky-blue, this ineffable grace of the mutual bows, this peaceful unworldliness, this infinite submissiveness to each other - is the artistic content of the Trinity.
Rublev was a visual composer of profound economy. We see this especially in the Trinity. The figures of Abraham and Sarah, integral to this Old Testament scene, are eliminated from the composition, empowering the negative spaces and concentrating all the viewer’s focus on the communion of the three angels. They are beautifully balanced in an arrangement of infinite circularity, which in turn is anchored by the crystalline folds of the garments and the strong horizontal and angular lines of the table, floor and seating. The negative space between the Three Persons famously evokes the contours of a chalice. Whether by chance or design, it amplifies the mystery of three distinct Persons being also one.
Before I come to the Trinity Cathedral I would like to look more closely at what an icon, in Orthodox terms, is, and how we might experience it in terms of its environment.
According to St John of Damascus “an icon is the visual image of what is invisible.” The light expressed in the icon is representative of the divine light, said to have ‘transfigured’ Jesus Christ on Mount Tabor. Paul Evdokimov calls this the “Taboric” light: the visible light of what is absolutely invisible. Through the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, Evdokimov writes that “Christ united human energy to divine and deifying energy.” (p28) The icon bears witness to this mysterious unification. Icons of the saints are thus, in the Orthodox world view, representations of historical persons, pierced through by the Light of Mount Tabor, the Light of Christ’s transfiguration. For as St Gregory Palamas says, “he who participates in the light becomes himself light.” Evdokimov speaks of the transfiguration of the concrete forms of this world; a vision of “theo-materialism” where “the whole reality of matter and history” is elevated “without losing anything.” The icon, according to Evdokimov, reveals the Person, matter and history pierced and elevated by divine light. Leonid Ouspensky poses the following: "Does the icon not show the truth and consequences of the divine Incarnation? Does it not illustrate with the utmost fullness and depth the Christian doctrine about the relationship between man and God, and between man and the world?"
The icon is, above all, in Orthodox life, the perpetual witness to the Incarnation of Christ, actualized, according to Christian belief, in the Transfiguration. This is the foundation and touchstone of Orthodox spirituality.
How is the relationship between “human and divine and deifying energy” expressed in the icon? There are essentially two parts to the icon: The part rendered in colours – primarily the figure but also landscape and object, and the part rendered by gold. These two sections interpenetrate, the former representing the human, the latter, the divine. Sophia Ivanova, in conversation with Pavel Florensky in Iconostasis, describes this relationship:
And just the same way that the creative grace of God is both cause and condition of all earth’s creation, just so in the icon: after the abstract pattern is sketched, the process of incarnating the icon begins with the gold-leafing of light. Further, in the same way that the icon begins with the gold of creative grace, it ends in the highlighting with the gold of illumination, assist. In this visual ontology, the painting of the icon repeats the main stages of God’s creation from absolute nothingness to holy creation.
Further on Ivanova states:
In the icon painting process the golden colour…first surrounds the areas that will become the figures, manifesting them as possibilities to be transfigured…
The “possibilities” to be “transfigured” (saint, landscape, object) are rendered from dark to light, with the light ‘opening’ out of the preceding tones. Light opens on the end point of a scale, as if on a ladder of chromatic fire. This ‘opening’ of light is the energy coming ‘through’ from the divine plane of gold ‘into’ the corporeal world. Ivanova describes this energy as it manifests in the rendering of the figures’ garments:
From the beginning of the 15th century…the folds become longer and wider and lose their material softness…as if the person’s lines and planes were crystallized matter…As a result what the iconic clothes now show is a spiritually resilient energy fulfilling a developed and coherent power.
The quality Ivanova describes is exemplified by the work of Rublev, and his workshop, in the Tretyakov Gallery. But there is another aspect of the icon’s ontology that I’d like to consider. And that is the environment it participates in and how this affects our experience of it.
From a purely aesthetic point of view the gallery is an ideal environment to view Rublev’s icons. The lighting is superb, the environment calm, the space ample. But the gallery itself is mute; the arrangement is sensitive, but categorical. Awakened to Rublev’s harmonies the viewer, compelled equally by the gallery’s logic, moves onto the next room, the next categorical period of iconography’s development. The harmonies awakened are thus commuted through the successive act of seeing. This is a problem I’ve long had with galleries and why I am naturally drawn to spaces where the artwork both activates and is activated by the architecture and by a purpose which lies beyond both.
These experiences of seeing have lead me to ask a seemingly obvious question, What is the object? In pondering this I have found that the art object exists in a simultaneous state of continual creation and degradation. A sacred object grows and lives, decays and dies, according to its function. Rublev’s icons, in the Tretyakov, have, perhaps, less life in them, than if they were venerated in a sobor. Viewed in a secular space, they are divested of their function; they fail to properly activate the rich, inner life of the soul; separated from the prayerful, liturgical environment they were intended for, they are, perhaps, less than what they were intended to be. And so it is, that the copies of Rublev’s Trinity, in Troitski Sobor, gleam as integral elements of an ancient cosmos, and Rublev’s masterpiece, lit behind glass in a museum, succumbs to the fate of the artefact. And so, perhaps, it is with all art, though religious art in particular: in the museum it slowly dies.
This brings me to the Trinity Cathedral (Troitski Sobor) and the Trinity Sergius Monastery (Troitsa Sergieva Lavra), located, as I mentioned earlier, 70 km north-east of Moscow.
Fig. 5. View of the Lavra.
Troitsa Sergieva Lavra is known as the heart of monasticism in Russia. It began in 1330 as a simple skete, that is a small community of monks, each with his own basic dwelling, who come together in prayer. Its founder was St Sergius of Radonezh (Prepodobni Sergi Radonezha), the father of Russian monasticism and one of Russia’s most beloved saints. Part of the story of St Sergius is told in pictures by the murals which adorn the monastery’s entrance arch.
Fig. 6 & 7. Murals on the walls of the monastery entrance arch and tunnel.
Andrei Rublev lived and worked in the lavra under Fr Sergius’ successor, Fr Nikon. Together with Danil Cherni he painted the frescoes and icons for the newly rebuilt Troitski Sobor (Trinity cathedral) between 1425-1427, which had been destroyed during an earlier Tartar invasion.
The cathedral itself is rather small. Its structure is built on four pillars and is topped by a single dome, representing God the Father. Within the sobor is housed the relics of St Sergius, which, rather incredibly, were preserved in the monastery throughout its suppression and closure. As such it has been a major focus of spiritual pilgrimage for centuries. Pilgrims have come seeking healing, to give offerings and to have masses performed. In centuries gone by they would walk for many days, if not weeks, to reach the lavra. Even with the advent of the rail in the 19th century people still came on foot. My own pilgrimage, it must be said, was more of an artistic one and I had the relative comfort of a modern commuter train from Moscow, rather than a four day walk– although finding where to go and how, with limited Russian, is an adventure all its own!
Obviously I did find my way, all the way to the entrance of Troitski Sobor. The interior of the cathedral is dim. Candle light barely illuminates the glistening red archways, the wax-sheened frescoes half-hidden, half-remembered, the drawn eyes of figures ghosting the centuries, baring witness to a pilgrimage that never appears to end. It is an intimate space, with people both sitting and standing. Women are constantly singing; the song and the prayer to St Sergius, it is said, never ceases.
Through the narthex and nave archways the iconostasis breathes out as if from some interminable dusk, the somber gold glinting like an interior echo of the midnight sun. Each icon is distinct and yet integral to the tableaux. Each darkened face like that of an eclipse, each pair of eyes like distant sorrow-filled stars in an ancient cosmos. And the iconostasis is truly a cosmos, a concentration of inter-related energies crackling with centuries of prayer. One does not ‘view’ the icons, one does not ‘inspect’ them or ‘analyse’ them; one beholds their presence, a choir of figures standing somehow, beyond time. One beholds them and is beheld in turn, for the centuries of collective unconscious imbued in the silent choir has much to say to the fleeting mortality of the beholder.
Fig. 9. Link to an internet image of The Trinity Cathedral iconostasis.
The nature of the sacred space, of course precludes photography, however I managed to find this photograph on the internet which is itself from a publication titled The Trinity Lavra. It shows all five rows of the iconostasis. The pillars, which you can see on either side of the picture, cut out the view of half of the panels in each row. So let us work with what we can see.
The bottom row, called the ‘Sovereign row’ largely dates from the 17th and 18th centuries. At its centre are the Beautiful Gates, the doorway between the nave and the sanctuary. The first icon to the left is Hodegetria, from the late 15th century. The first to the right is the Old Testament Trinity by Baranov, painted in 1929. The timing is interesting to note as it coincides with the monastery’s closure and I’m presuming that it may have been painted to replace Rublev’s Trinity, which, at the time, was moved to the Tretyakov. It mirrors another Old Testament Trinity, from the 16th century, to the left of the Hodegetria icon. Both are based on Rublev’s classic Trinity icon. To the right of Baranov’s work is an undated copy of another Rublev icon. The third to the left of centre is the Holy Mandylion from 1674.
The second row is called the Deisis Row and is entirely the work of Andrei Rublev’s workshop, from 1425-1427. It is similar in proportion to the Deisis Row which we looked at, from the Treyakov. As in the Tretyakov Deisis it shows Christ enthroned, flanked by the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and the Archangels, together with the principle apostles, theologians and martyrs.
The next row up is the Festival Row, also by Rublev’s workshop. The icons are much smaller and harder to see. They include, however, icons depicting the major Orthodox festivals, such as Christmas, The Last Supper, the Annunciation, etc.
Above the Festival Row we see the row of Old Testament Prophets, also entirely by Rublev’s workshop. Finally, above the Prophets Row is a line of tall, arched icons, comprised of the Forefathers, also from the Old Testament, and dating from the 16th century.
Of the frescoes it is more difficult to speak as I’m without adequate visual resources. We do know, however, that Rublev and Chernyi’s frescoes were painted over in the 19th century and it is not clear to me whether what is now visible are the restored originals or the 19th century paint work. The UNESCO website for the lavra identifies the work as Rublev’s but I have as yet found no literature to confirm when and if the restoration work was carried out.
The experience of being within the Trinity Cathedral is on a completely different level to the one had in the Tretyakov. Its atmosphere precludes any thought of academic categorization such as the information I’ve just sketched in. For in the sobor one enters, and participates in, a creative symbol of the cosmos. The harmonies opened by the frescoes and icons transmit to the faithful and transform into prayers, which flow in turn outwards, towards the icons, which in turn grow in harmonic and spiritual depth. And so it is that pilgrim, sacred space and sacred art form a circulatory power. For the Person, in the Orthodox world view, is the seed of the icon and the icon the seed of the Person. In Orthodox spirituality the destiny of each Person is to be transfigured by the Taboric light, to be filled and transformed by Divinity, to become a living icon.
And what of the non-Orthodox visitor? The experience, for me at least was one of being held within a deep and beautiful centre. One stays and dwells, rather than ‘moves on’. The atmosphere penetrates, unforgettably so. The particulars of the iconostasis were not important to me at the time, and remain subordinate in my mind to the power of the whole. The individual icons are more, it seems, than their physical properties determine. They are parts of a greater collective, meta-aesthetic whole. They activate and are activated, as we are.