The Hospitality of Abraham (Icon of The Holy Trinity; The Old Testament Trinity) by Andrei Rublev

Andrey Rublyov

The Hospitality of Abraham (Icon of The Holy Trinity; The Old Testament Trinity), c.1420s, Levkas and tempera on panel, 142 x 114 cm, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow / Scala / Art Resource, NY

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A Place at the Table

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Aaron Rosen

Andrey Rublyov’s icon is a mystery. Theories abound about its date, patron, provenance, and even creator. It is only since the twentieth century that the icon’s original paint has been visible. For centuries, the icon was covered by a revetment (or riza), a protective metal plate attached by nails, whose holes are still visible in the wood. Moreover, the icon was continually ‘renewed’ by periodic repainting, a practice that brushes against the grain of contemporary Western notions of authenticity. But beneath all these layers of ambiguity lies an even more challenging theological enigma: who are these angelic figures, and what do they represent?

For centuries, Jewish and Christian commentators have puzzled over how to interpret the three strangers who arrive at Abraham’s tent. To the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo, this trio represented God, accompanied by his powers, while to the rabbis, God appeared with an angelic coterie. In the eyes of the second-century Christian writer Justin Martyr, the story revealed an early—albeit anonymous—entry of Christ into human history. Two centuries later, St Augustine would deliver a classic interpretation, reading the three visitors as representations of the Holy Trinity.

Rather than resolving competing interpretations, Rublyov’s icon entertains them. On the one hand, the three figures’ different gestures and garb encourage individual identifications, with the central figure often interpreted as Christ. As Rowan Williams notes, however, the figures’ identical faces and interlocking gazes might be more expressive of the dynamic of the Trinity, illustrating its ever-flowing interdependence.

Sometimes lost in such interpretations is the character of Abraham. Standing in front of this massive icon in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, I remember recognizing that these angels were not missing an Abraham; they were simply waiting for me—the viewer—to take up that role. Was I called to humbly serve the angels, or perhaps the icon itself? What hospitality could I offer before this sublime sight?