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?
18 And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, 3and said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, 5while I fetch a morsel of 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.” 6And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes.” 7And Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8Then he took curds, and milk, and the calf which he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
9 They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” 10The Lord said, “I will surely return to you in the spring, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”
16 Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. 17The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him? 19No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” 20Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorʹrah is great and their sin is very grave, 21I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry which has come to me; and if not, I will know.”
22 So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom; but Abraham still stood before the Lord. 23Then Abraham drew near, and said, “Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? 24Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt thou then destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25Far be it from thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” 26And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” 27Abraham answered, “Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Wilt thou destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29Again he spoke to him, and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31He said, “Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.