"The Holy Trinity" in danger

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Andrei Rublev (c. 1360/70-c. 1427/30)
The Trinity, 1410-1427
Tempera on panel - 142 x 114 cm
Moscow, Tretyakov Gallery
Photo: Wikipedia (public domain)
See the image in its page

The Moscow Patriarchate recently announced that, "in response to numerous requests from Orthodox believers", President Vladimir V. Putin has decided to return to the Church the famous icon of the "Trinity", traditionally attributed to Andrei Rublev, the most famous Russian icon painter. With the blessing of Patriarch Kirill, it will be displayed for one year in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour for veneration, before being sent to the Trinity Cathedral of the Trinity-Serge Lavra, sixty kilometres from Moscow. This decision is intended to put an end to fifteen years of confrontation between the Church and the Tretyakov Gallery.

In 2008, when public opinion could still be taken into account by the authorities, the Church’s first attempt to recover the icon, once nationalised by the Bolsheviks, failed. With petitions, the museum managed to defend it. Last summer, on the occasion of Saint Sergius’s birthday and in the midst of the war in Ukraine, the Church took its revenge: the icon went to the Lavra for a few days, where it attended religious services and was, as it should be, venerated by those who were allowed to enter. This first risky operation resulted in significant damage to the pictorial surface: Russia’s most famous icon is in an extremely fragile state.
In Russia, there is complete silence around any decisions taken by the president. They are not discussed. The same rule applies to "cultural policy", which in recent months has taken on a rhythm and dialectic appropriate to the state of war. These are not good times for petitions, even if they have already been launched. On 23 May, the council of restorers of the Tretyakov Gallery published a protocol expressing concern about the alarming state of the icon and had the courage to speak out against any removal. The Church has taken this opinion into account and considers that this move raises the question of preparing a suitable box...

Let us try to understand the issues at stake in the conflict concerning one of the works of art of international importance. To do this, we must say a few words about the historical significance of this icon.
The "Trinity", although not miraculous, as the patriarchate claims, has a very special status in the history of Christian painting. Recent studies have cast doubt on its age-old attribution to the brush of Andrei Rublev, a pupil of Theophanes the Greek and spiritual heir to Saint Sergius of Radonezh. It is not easy to make a "praise of the hand", to use Henri Focillon’s expression, when talking about the Middle Ages, and even more so when one is in early fifteenth-century Russia. Nevertheless, the "Trinity" undoubtedly belongs to the circle that worked for the great monasteries and cathedrals between Moscow, Zvenigorod and Vladimir. It is probably the most outstanding result of the joint work of learned monks, ascetics and painters who, unlike Andrei, did not leave their names in history.

Every icon is a theology in colour, a dogma incarnated in the image, a Saint’s life, a church feast, a devotional image. But the "Trinity" is one of the masterpieces of Christian iconic theology. Why is this so? In surprisingly laconic ways, it reveals the complex and paradoxical orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, inseparable in its unity, but irreducible to that unity. Inspired by the Old Testament story of the hospitality offered by the patriarch Abraham to the three travellers, the angels of the Lord, the painter omits most of the details of the meal. He kept the pilgrims’ staffs, the mountain, the oak tree and the house, the respective attributes of the Holy Spirit, the Son and the Father. The silent dialogue of the angels is constructed by their glances which do not cross, but which indicate the direction of the word. The key object of this mysterious exchange is the sacrificial chalice with the calf’s head placed on the table between them. The Son, as if in the Garden of Gethsemane, asks the Father if he should drink from the cup; the Father, blessing it in turn, looks at the Saint, transmitting his will; the Saint, with his head slightly more bowed, "nods" and acts. This eternal advice has no connection with the providential encounter in the grove of Mamre: no Abraham, no Sarah, no slave to prepare the meal. But it is the fate of humanity that is decided: the Trinity will save it by sacrificing the Son of the Father with the help of the Spirit. And at the same time, this eternal council is presented as the Eucharist: with their silhouettes, the figures of the Father and the Saint form a cup, inside which is the Son who is going to death.

The restorers agree that the faces show very well the original trace of the "Rublevian" brush. Their expressions, similar and different at the same time, are important. The central figure of the Son is slightly more frontal than the side figures, but together with the angel on the right, the central angel is clearly leaning towards the one seated on the left, thus emphasising the role of the Father despite his visibly secondary position. None of the angels look at the viewer, who is not invited to a direct dialogue, as the Trinity is beyond human sight. The wings connect the figures, which do not touch each other, and this device can also be read as a reflection on the dogma of the inseparability of the Trinity.

Did 15th century Muscovite Russia appreciate the icon of this dogmatic and artistic richness, painted in the same years as Masaccio’s great Trinity in Florence? I sincerely believe that the great discovery of the Rublevian circle is due to the immense spiritual influence of Saint Sergius and to the no less important contribution of the last great artistic current coming from Byzantium on the threshold of its fall: the Renaissance linked to the Palaeologoi, the last great dynasty of Constantinople. In 1551, the Council of the Hundred Chapters, meeting in Moscow, consecrated the rule according to which the Trinity should be painted "in the manner of Rublev", thus attesting to the correctness of the iconographic solution he had chosen, while linking his venerable name to the icon.

The motif of the sacrificial chalice is obvious to the naked eye. It had even led some art historians to see the "Trinity" as a kind of Eucharistic icon, reducing its entire significance to liturgical practices. Today one can ascribe it to the so called "Trinity at the Altar" type. This is probably partly true, as this icon is functionally the image that "illustrates" the cathedral of the Lavra, dedicated to the Trinity. It was painted for the iconostasis. For decades, a very good copy served as a substitute for the original. But, as I have tried to show, it is more than that. The ideological and state significance of the Lavra and its main icon led Ivan IV the Terrible to give it a frame, the oklad, which completely hid from view all the subtlety and mystery I have just described. The oklad of Boris Godunov, preserved to this day in the Lavra Museum, seems to follow its structure faithfully. Here, the sober "altar" on which, in the icon, the chalice stands, is transformed into a royal banquet, the biblical travellers into richly disguised guests, the rock (symbol of spiritual ascent) is visually merged with the tree, symbol of the Cross, the calf’s head is removed from the chalice, and the central angel blesses not the cup, but a saucer and a spoon. The silent dialogue of the eyes is obscured by the glitter of the stone halos and the hand gestures are simply meaningless. During the 17th century, Fyodor Borisovich Godunov added a panaghia around the neck of the central angel, while Fyodor Mikhailovich Romanov gave lavish necklaces, tsaty, to two others. It is in this form that the icon fulfilled its liturgical function until 1918.
It is clear that, with all due respect to the authority of Andrei Rublev, few people cared about the theological subtleties of his "Trinity", even in the sixteenth century when it formally became a "rule". This does not mean that the icon was insufficiently venerated. It is that veneration and scholarly "readings" are not the same thing, both in religion and in scientific research. It is interesting to note that contemporary Catholics have understood the extraordinary message of the icon which transmits the dogma in a very orthodox and, consequently, schismatic way from the Western point of view: it is indeed the relationship within the Trinity which is the crucial point of the rupture between East and West. Today, a reproduction of the "Trinity" is easily found in Catholic churches, even in large cathedrals, in France and elsewhere, often near the altar, displayed, of course, not for kissing or other forms of veneration, which are rare in the West. But perhaps as a hope for unity between East and West, a unity that many of us still seek. Despite everything...

How to read the presidential decision that opposes the curators and art historians, a decision based not on any "agreement" of the gallery director and the restoration council, but on the easily organised will of the "flock"? Any believer will agree that the main place of worship for the icon is the church. But he will also agree that this place is not unique, otherwise the "red corner" of the Russian hut, present in every believer’s house or flat, would have to be removed as a cultural heritage of "Holy Russia". In addition, thousands of icons expropriated - but also restored! - by the Bolsheviks, are on display in museums: no scandal is made of them. The "Trinity" in question, blackened and repainted several times, was resurrected, discovered in the strict sense of the word, in museum conditions, at the beginning of the 20th century. Access to the shrine in one of the country’s most beautiful museums was obviously quite free, and I had often seen people praying there.

The transfer of such an icon is a "current" political gesture, but of medieval origin. All the great miraculous icons of Russia tell of how they travelled, fought battles, appeased enemies, suffered attacks from infidels and heretics, punished the disobedient and triumphed over the enemies of the Fatherland. They did their work, like all images, which were and remain true agents. But these icons in action also passed on some of their charisma to those who had the audacity to intervene in their peaceful lives, for example by moving them from Kiev to Vladimir and from Vladimir to Moscow. Today, the leader of a country, where every church is now obliged to pray for "victory" and not for "peace" (to speak of peace is condemnable today), must of course also be a religious leader, capable of a non-trivial approach. For what he undertook last year is unfortunately a matter of religion. Especially since he has examples to follow: Erdogan dared to oppose the whole world by returning Saint-Sophia to worship, ignoring Atatürk’s decision, but federating Istanbul society around a major event. Despite the visible differences in scale, it is an equivalent gesture.

The return of the great icon to the Church is seen by its initiator as a higher justice, a gratitude to the patriarch and the ecclesiastical elite for their support in the war, a pledge of the unbreakable union of throne and altar. In the medieval Christian consciousness, the true power of action of the devotional image, powerful as it is, is inextricably linked to its location in the church space, performative by its very nature. Prayer before the real Rumboldt "Trinity", not a Soviet-era copy, is certainly more effective in the mind of a believer. And especially not by any believer. Let’s imagine for a moment the members of the Defence Council, who are very pious, as we know, gathered in the great cathedral of Moscow around the icon officially called "miraculous": miracles are expected. I repeat, this is not obscurantism, but the medieval logic inscribed in the history of Christian art, a logic very close to the mentality of the Russian ruling elites. The iconographic programme of the main cathedral of the Russian armed forces in Kubinka, inaugurated in May 2020, a harbinger of the current catastrophe, is excellent proof of this. The icon, so venerated in the West, must serve the "good cause", wherever the authorities want it. A question of applied militant omnipotence.

The unprecedented special operation, carried out without making unnecessary noise, to "save" Rublev’s "Trinity" from the Tretyakov Gallery is certainly disheartening in its irresponsibility. Damaged on the first trip to Sergiev Posad last summer, there is no guarantee that this will not happen a second time. It is possible to force the Church to monitor the temperature and humidity conditions. It is possible to organise the space of the small Trinity Cathedral by displaying the icon not in the iconostasis, where it should simply be among the others, but in a sealed box, like a trophy (which it will become). The Church "guarantees" its involvement in its preservation, and the patriarch’s legal attaché, igumene Xenia Tchernega, curtly explained the legal basis of the case. Since the cathedral is in fact too small to house the venerable icon and relics of Saint Sergius, there are already whispers about the possible relocation of the "Trinity" to the other large church in the Lavra. But, once again, before this final destination, there will be a year of exhibition in the great cathedral of Moscow, the place of the patriarch’s services.

In conclusion, the Russian Orthodox Church naturally has no intention of harming the history of early Russian painting, especially not of destroying a masterpiece. But in recent years there have been cases where the permanent exposure of an ancient icon to worship has damaged it dramatically. I wonder if Patriarch Kirill thinks little of the reasons for conservation, much more of the victory of good over evil. Like his very pious friend who took this heavy decision. Another one. And this despite the fact that the Rublevian "Trinity" was discovered by art historians and not by a cult, historically quite discreet on the subject of the great Marian icons (of Vladimir, Don, Smolensk, Kazan’ ). Entrusting a treasure of world importance to the hands of a monastery, even the largest monastery in Russia, an icon whose preservation was entrusted to the responsibility of professionals - all this is Russian roulette.

Oleg Voskoboynikov, medievalist, professor of art history and doctor of the EHESS

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