See the Holy Trinity in a New Way With This Old Icon

The “Hospitality of Abraham” is a type of the Trinity — but not a representation of the Trinity itself.

Andrei Rublev, “The Holy Trinity,” before 1430
Andrei Rublev, “The Holy Trinity,” before 1430 (photo: Andrei Rublev, “The Holy Trinity,” before 1430)

You’ve probably seen many artists’ renditions of the Trinity: At Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, there’s the Son of God in the water, God the Father in the clouds, and the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, hovering like a dove above Jesus’ head. Or sometimes, you see them on the clouds in heaven: the Son and the Father sitting side by side, enthroned, and the Holy Spirit depicted as a dove between their heads, framed by a halo.

The Trinitarian image seen most frequently in the Eastern Church, though, is different. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the most familiar image is of a Russian icon by Andrei Rublev (1408-1425) called “The Old Testament Trinity.” In it, three winged creatures sit together around a table.

I remember the first time I encountered the icon. A priest explained that the three winged creatures, like angels, represented the Trinity, and each of the divine Persons was co-equal with the others.

But what I have learned since is that there is another, very different interpretation in the Eastern Church. The icon is often called the “Hospitality of Abraham,” and represents the three angels (Three Visitors) who appeared to Abraham at Mamre in Genesis 18:1-15:

“The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on —  since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

“They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’”

The “Hospitality of Abraham” is a type of the Trinity — but not a representation of the Trinity itself. 

Actually, the Russian Orthodox Church specifically forbids any representation of God the Father in the form of a human person. There had long been a tradition against showing the Father, and in 1667, the Great Synod of Moscow addressed this canonically:

“It is most absurd and improper to depict in icons the Lord Sabaoth (that is to say, God the Father) with a gray beard and the Only-Begotten Son in his bosom with a dove between them, because no-one has seen the Father according to his divinity, and the Father has no flesh, nor was the Son born in the flesh from the Father before the ages. And though David the prophet says, ‘From the womb before the morning star have I begotten Thee’ (Psalm 109:3), that birth was not fleshly, but unspeakable and incomprehensible.

“For Christ Himself says in the holy Gospel, ‘No man hath seen the Father, save the Son’ (cf. John 6:46). And Isaiah the prophet says in his 40th chapter, ‘To whom have ye likened the Lord? And with what likeness have ye made a similitude of Him? Has not the artificer of wood made an image, or the goldsmiths, having melted gold, gilt it over, and made it a similitude?’ (40:18-19) In like manner the Apostle Paul says in the Acts (17-29), ‘Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold or silver or stone, graven by art of man’s imagination.’ And John Damascene says, ‘But furthermore, who can make a similitude of the invisible, incorporeal, uncircumscribed and undepictable God?’

“It is, then, uttermost insanity and impiety to give a form to the Godhead (Orthodox Faith, 4:16). In like manner St. Gregory the Dialogist prohibits this. For this reason we should only form an understanding in the mind of Sabaoth, which is the Godhead, and of the birth before the ages of the Only-Begotten-Son from the Father, but that we should never, in any wise, depict these in icons, for this, indeed, is impossible.

“And the Holy Spirit is not in essence a dove, but in essence he is God, and ‘no man has seen God,’ as John the Theologian and Evangelist bears witness (1:18) and this is so even though, at the Jordan at Christ’s holy baptism the Holy Spirit appeared in the likeness of a dove. But in any other place those who have intelligence will not depict the Holy Spirit in the likeness of a dove. For on Mount Tabor he appeared as a cloud and, at another time, in other ways.

“Furthermore, Sabaoth is the name not only of the Father, but of the Holy Trinity. According to Dionysios the Areopagite, Lord Sabaoth, translated from the Jewish tongue, means ‘Lord of Hosts.’ This Lord of Hosts is the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And although Daniel the Prophet says that he beheld the Ancient of Days sitting on a throne, this should not be understood to refer to the Father, but to the Son, who at his second coming will judge every nation at the dreadful judgment.”