Russian icon | Holy Trinity

Icon: Holy Trinity B-1

Russia, Novgorod-region, second half 16th century
Tempera on panel, 107.5 x 81.5 cm

Private Collection, West Palm Beach, USA, since 1970’s
Morsink Icon Gallery, Amsterdam
ALR Ref. No.: S00106596

TEFAF catalogue 2018, p. 281
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Trinity, Novgorod, 16th century,
Russian Museum St Petersburg
(Inv. No. DRZH-1750)

The icon of the Holy Trinity is based on the old testament story of Abraham’s Hospitality (Genesis 18:1-16). Three identical men visited Abraham and his wife Sarah at the oak of Mamre, and predicted the birth of a son, Isaac. Later on these three men were interpreted as a manifestation of the Trinity, in the guise of angels, while the meal that Abraham and Sarah had offered their guests was regarded as a prefiguration of the Eucharist. 

The icon depicts the three angels of the Holy Trinity sitting on high seats without backs around a prepared table. All three angels hold a messenger’s staff in one hand and make a gesture of blessing with the other to the chalices before them. Their feet are placed on a schemel (footrest). The angel in the centre, who traditionally is interpreted as Jesus Christ, inclines his head to the left. The angel to the left, interpreted as God the Father, inclines his head to the centre. The angel to the right, interpreted as the Holy Spirit, bows his head to the centre as well. In the background, from left to right, are Abraham and Sarah’s house, the oak of Mamre and the rock, all recognizably Christian symbols. The edifice behind God the Father is the House of God, symbolizing wisdom. The oak tree above Christ’s head in the centre is the Tree of Life, symbolizing the Resurrection and the wood of the cross. The mountain towering high above the Holy Spirit is the Rock of Faith, a traditional symbol for spiritual elevation. To the lower left and lower right side, Abraham and Sarah stand in front of the table, holding dishes with veiled hands while serving their guests. 

As with other icons of such size depicting the Trinity, this piece would probably have been placed in the local tier of an iconostasis as a dedicatory icon. Icons of the Trinity adhere to several distinct iconographic types. While the Rublev type only represents the three angels at a table, other types complement this scene with a depiction of Abraham and Sarah and the slaying of the calf. The iconography with Abraham and Sarah standing in the foreground to the left and to the right, and serving their guest is typical for the Novgorod region in the second half of the 16th century. A good example is the slightly larger Trinity icon from Novgorod with a similar composition, now in the collection of the Russian Museum in St Petersburg (Inv. No. DRZH-1750). The style of painting of the present icon is clearly influenced by Novgorod icon painting from the 16th century.  The characteristic composition, energetic lines, solid figures and bright colours, make this icon a rare example of late-medieval monumental icon painting in the Novgorod region. 

In the Russian orthodox church the feast of the Holy Trinity is celebrated during Pentecost, as Pentecost is regarded as the feast at which the revelation of God as Three-In-One is completed. At Christmas the Father sends his Son, at Easter the Son vanquishes death, and at Pentecost the Holy Spirit descends on the people. Pentecost is thus the feast of the revelation of the third person who, together with the Father and the Son, brings about the salvation of mankind.

In Russia the Holy Trinity represents peace, love and spiritual unity. The concept of the Holy Trinity has played a central role in Russia’s religious and daily life since the time of St Sergei of Radonezh (1314-1392).