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Art in Theology by Dan Siedell

“There exists the icon of the Trinity by St. Andrei Rublev; therefore God exists.”

This statement by Fr. Pavel Florensky, Russian Orthodox priest, mathematician, art historian and martyr, is not the kind of apologetic strategy that Christians in the West are used to. To say that our tastes run toward the intellectual is an understatement. Whether we prefer the elegant Aristotelian cathedrals of the Scholastics or the sturdy Foundationalist bunkers of the Biola School, Christian apologetics in the West is a rational sport. To our western ears, Florensky’s argument sounds woolly, mystical, or patently irrational. This is so not simply because we have inherited a very different tradition of apologetics, we also, perhaps more importantly, have inherited a very different tradition of art.

For us in the West art depicts the world around us, expresses our emotions, and teaches moral or ethical truths. In short, it represents, sometimes the visible world of things, sometimes the abstract world of ideas or the inner world of emotions. And therefore it tends to play a subservient—even decorative—role in the production of knowledge or truth. In the context of both the Catholic and Protestant Church the implications are clear. At its best art can only illustrate truth, help us “visualize” it. But at its worst it is an idolatrous distraction. The result is that western viewers and critics tend to consider the religious or secular works of art to be texts, visual illustrations of a philosophical truth or a theological worldview that need to be “read.” As a museum curator for over a decade I can attest to this tendency among audiences, whether young or old, novice or expert. Art must know its place in the western epistemological line.

Yet in the Eastern Church this is not so. Art does something else. The place to begin to unpack this distinctive approach is with Florensky’s own example, The Holy Trinity painted by the Russian monk Andrei Rublev (1370-c. 1430). St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press has recently published the first English translation of an insightful, profound, yet comprehensible introduction to the riches of this icon. Originally written in German in 1994 by the Benedictine eremitical monk Gabriel Bunge,The Rublev Trinityhas been translated into English by Andrew Louth, a well-known scholar of the Eastern Fathers of the Orthodox Church.

What little is known of Andrei Rublev comes from The Life of St. Nikon of Radonezh, a hagiography of Rublev’s spiritual father compiled by a Serbian monk who also wrote the hagiography of St. Sergii of Radonezh (1314-92), the spiritual father of Nikon and considered to be the spiritual father of Russia. Venerated as a saint even during his lifetime, St. Sergii’s spiritual life was intimately related to the mystery of the Trinity. Bunge shows how Rublev’s spiritual life, through Sergii and Nikon, was shaped by a particular devotion to the Trinity and that the icon ofThe Holy Trinityemerges from this distinctive spiritual formation.

The monk’s practice as an icon painter is inseparable from his practice as a Christian. The icon is thus more than theology in paint. It is prayer in paint. This achievement was only possible through the ascetical disciplines. Rublev and his friend and “fellow faster” Daniil, himself an accomplished icon painter, would sit for hours simply contemplating an icon of the Holy Trinity in St. Sergii’s Trinity Monastery. Bunge demonstrates that it is this devotion that nourished his soul and prepared Rublev for his greatest aesthetic achievement.

Needless to say, Rublev was not the first to paint an icon of the Trinity. There is a long and diverse history of images relating to the mysterious scene in Genesis 18, in which three visitors, commonly taken by Christian readers to be the Triune God, announce that Abraham and Sarah would have a son, Isaac, the child of promise. Bunge discerns three different but closely related iconographic traditions and he explores how Rublev assimilated aspects of each while he simultaneously and ingeniously innovated new forms in such a manner that it was “thoroughly traditional and, equally in an unqualified sense, unique” (13).

Rublev’s challenge was to “give each particular figure an unmistakable countenance” (89). Following the distinctions of Gregory Palamas, Rublev does not paint the Trinity in its essence (which would be idolatrous), but through its energies, its manifestation in the economy of salvation, “according to the vision of the prophets,” according to what has been revealed for our salvation (20). Therefore, the Father, whom Rublev depicts on the left, is almost “completely veiled,” since we know of Him only through the Son and the Spirit, whom Irenaeus of Lyons calls the Father’s “two hands” (96). And both the Son and Spirit bow toward the upright Father. In addition, Bunge draws attention to the fact that although Christ is in the center of the composition and his right hand blesses the Eucharist, the “Father’s focus is on the Spirit” (102). Rublev offers a subtle yet powerful articulation of the monarchy of the Father, the distinctive Eastern comprehension of the Trinity, which resulted in the stiff and aggressive resistance of the Orthodox Church for a millennium to the so-called “double procession” of the Spirit from both the Father and the Son (filioque).

Bunge suggests that given the orientation of the altar, the viewer is actually experiencing the intimate “wordless” conversation between Father, Son, and Spirit, from behind the altar, that is, in communion with this divine mystery. The praying believer is thus given a vision of the Father eternally begetting the Son, the Spirit eternally proceeding from the Father, and both the Son and Spirit glorifying, and thus revealing, the Father. The icon, like the Trinity itself, is not static but dynamic, active, working to enfold us in its embrace.

There remains so much more to Bunge’s rich meditation on the Rublev Trinity than art history. Not only is the Holy Trinity the result of Rublev’s own spiritual formation, Bunge’s writing is clearly the product of prayer and fasting, through which he, following Pseudo- Dionysius, “plunges into the truly mysterious darkness of unknowing,” of the mysterium Trinitatis. And it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that this text should also be read in the same way. For in the last analysis, as Bunge observes in a profound meditation at the end of the book, what is experienced when this icon is contemplated is “My being, my salvation, as the subject of conversation between the Father, Son, and Spirit” (111). So in the contemplation of and participation in this icon, the Trinity becomes more than merely a dogma of the Church to which one gives intellectual assent. It is where the Gospel itself, and thus my life, my salvation is found.

Is it possible that the West has something to learn aesthetically from the Eastern theological understanding of the icon? Philosopher Jean-Luc Marion thinks so. In Crossing the Visible he suggests that Nicaea II, the ecumenical council that affirmed the role for icons in Christian worship,“formulates above all and—perhaps the only—alternative to the contemporary disaster of the image.” The image has its origin in and through Christ, who is the “image” (ikon) of God. This is the dogmatic foundation of the icon. Moreover, the icon is the theological foundation of all painting, secular and religious. It is the artistic practice of the Church. The icon is not something to be “decoded,” “read,” or a symbol for something more important. It is an event that is to be contemplated, internalized, and experienced. This recognition is familiar to artists in the West, both religious and secular. Yet many theologians and philosophers dismiss such experiences as romantic self-indulgence and naïve mysticism. What these artists might have been bumping up against is an aesthetic that is, in fact, Nicene.

As an art historian, curator of exhibitions, art critic, and educator, I live and work and have my being in modern and contemporary art and theory. I work precisely where the crisis of the image is most obvious. Yet I find hope. I find altars to the Unknown God (Acts 17) strewn about the landscape of contemporary art. My responsibility is to name these altars, to declare confidently and creatively that it is in Christ that all things hold together (Col. 1: 17), even in contemporary art. It is to discern the Logos in the logos of the work of art. Protestants and Catholics need to rediscover Nicaea II and the insights of the theology and practice of the icon. We do not need to transform western religious or secular art into something that looks like icons, but to recognize that the very presence of the icon in the history of the Church underwrites all painting. The Incarnation of Christ not only changed the nature of humanity, it changed the painted image, ripping it open to receive the Spirit. The theology of the icon is not an exotic cultural quirk of the Eastern Orthodox. It is the way the world of painted images actually works because Christ has changed the material world, the material of flesh and bones, as well as paint and wood. Perhaps it is not an exaggeration to claim, following Florensky, Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity exists, therefore art exists.