Rublev’s Troitsa & Iconography in Orthodoxy

Rublev’s Troitsa icon on display in St. Sergius Lavra, Sergiev Posad, Russia

The 600-year-old Troitsa icon, aka the Trinity icon by St. Andrei Rublev (based on the story of Abraham’s hospitality toward the three men—the Trinity—who visited him in the desert), is probably the most meaningful icon in my own spiritual life. It is one of my great desires to make a pilgrimage to Russia someday and venerate this icon in person. That doesn’t seem feasible in the near-future, given my country’s current relationship with Russia, but I pray that this relationship will change in my lifetime.

Rublev’s Troitsa icon can usually be seen at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, but earlier this month it briefly returned to its traditional home at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, located in the holy St. Sergius Lavra in Sergiev Posad. The St. Sergius Lavra is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO describes the lavra as a major spiritual center of Russian Orthodoxy; some would argue that the lavra is the spiritual center of Russian Orthodoxy. Orthodox Christianity reports:

The [Troitsa] icon was removed from the cathedral iconostasis by Soviet authorities in 1920. After 9 years in a museum in Zagorsk (Sergiev Posad), it was transferred to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, where it has remained ever since.

But in honor of the 600th anniversary of the uncovering of the relics of St. Sergius being celebrated today, the museum agreed to temporarily deliver the icon to the monastery, reports RIA-Novosti.

This is the first time the icon has returned to the monastery since its removal.

The icon was delivered on the night of July 16-17, and was placed in front of its original location on the iconostasis in Holy Trinity Cathedral, where lie the relics of St. Sergius. The icon is behind protective glass.

The services for the feast are being led by His Holiness Patriarch Kirill. About 20,000 pilgrims are expected at the Lavra.

Christianity is not a purely literary or spiritual faith, although many Protestants seem to treat it that way. Christian worship is a completely sensory, physical, visual experience as well. Why do Orthodox Christians venerate icons? Father Jeremy at Orthodox Road explains:

WHY DO WE HAVE ICONS?

The short answer to this question is because of the Incarnation. If photographic technology existed at the time of Jesus, we would doubtless have thousands of photos of Jesus. Because such technology did not exist, the ancients painted his image. According to tradition, the Apostle Luke painted the first icons.

Icons are a testament of the fact that our God, who is by nature bodiless and incorporeal, took an actual human body and united it to himself, forever uniting the divine nature to human nature, to matter, sanctifying it and redeeming it in himself. Therefore, the Orthodox have always understood iconoclasm to be a heresy that denies the Incarnation of God and thereby denies humanity its salvation in Christ.

In his physical body, our God lived, died, and resurrected for us. He saves us and bestows upon us his sanctifying grace through means of matter. Hints of this theology can be seen in the Gospels when Jesus’ clothes become light-bearing at the Transfiguration, when the woman with the issue of blood touches the fringe of his garment, etc.

GRACE THROUGH MATTER

Our Lord’s disciples bestowed the grace of God upon others through matter when they laid their hands on others for healing or ordination, when they prayed over handkerchiefs and sent them to the sick, when their mere shadow “touched” people and healed them. The culmination of it can be seen in the Eucharist (communion) when those who received the grace of God unworthily had Satan enter them (as with Judas in Luke 22:3) or became sick and died (1 Cor. 11:30). Matter matters.

God has chosen matter to be his means of bringing grace and salvation into the world. Icons testify of this theology.

DO WE WORSHIP ICONS?

In short, no, we Orthodox Christians do not worship icons, though some people, in ignorance, accuse us of idolatry. This issue came to a head in the eighth and ninth centuries when, probably under the influence of Islam, some Christians began to destroy icons and persecute those who venerate them. This heresy is called Iconoclasm.

So if we do not worship icons, then why are we bowing before them and kissing them?

Christianity began in an eastern culture that was not a horizontal, but a vertical society. There was no sense of egalitarianism in the ancient east. Any decent person showed great respect to his elders in both society and the faith. In Japan, we can still see remnants of their vertical society, which has not been completely Westernized. Japanese people venerate and bow to their elders and superiors, not as a form of worship, but to show respect. In the same way, Christians have always bowed to their superiors in the faith in order to show respect. Even in the Old Testament, we see the Prophet Nathan prostrating himself before King David (1 Kings 1:23), not out of worship, but respect for the office given him by God.

WE PHYSICAL MEN NEED PHYSICAL SALVATION

When we venerate an icon, we are really showing honor to God. Our veneration passes through the matter and to the prototype whose image is depicted, and if it is a saint, the honor really passes to God himself because it is his grace that has vivified and sanctified that saint. The material icon gives us physical creatures a means of showing veneration.

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