Trinity Sunday: the Hospitality of Abraham
In the early Church, and still in the Eastern churches, the usual way to depict the Trinity is through the Old Testament story of “The Hospitality of Abraham” Genesis 18:1-15. In the Bible story, Abraham realizes that he has actually been visited by God. The three angels who visited Abraham are types of the three Persons of the Trinity, and this theme is often called “The Old Testament Trinity.” The most famous image of this subject is a medieval Russian icon:
Andrei Rublev. The Hospitality of Abraham. c1410-1420. Tempera on Panel. Tretyiakov Gallery, Moscow
The story of Abraham and his mysterious angelic visitors is the Biblical account which frames all of the meaning of this icon. The icon shows three figures, who seem identical upon first look. Each has a garment of blue, symbolizing heaven. But the differences are significant.
The figure on the left is associated God the Father, wearing dazzling robes. Behind him is a house, signifying the dwelling place of God.
In the center is Christ in the purple garment of royalty. The tree in the middle of the painting is both the Oak of Mamre, the place where Abraham met the three angels, and also a symbol of Christ’s Crucifixion. Christ places two fingers on the table, signifying that he lays down his human and his divine nature in sacrifice.
The Holy Spirit, on the right, wears a green robe of new life. There is mountain behind him, mountains being a common place where man encounters God. This serves as a reminder of the necessity to ascend the spiritual heights.
The figure on the left sits straight, while the toher two figures incline their heads in a gesture of bowing to the Father. The three are seated at a table which represents the altar; on it, a chalice holds wine and bread.