In my previous post, we saw how C.S. Lewis portrays the Trinity not as a dry, baffling dogma but as a dynamic, living reality in which we are called to participate as Christians. That dynamic understanding of the Trinity can also be seen in the celebrated icon by Andrei Rublev which I used as the illustration for that post, and which is shown again above.
This icon is known by various names: The Visitation of Abraham, The Holy Trinity, and The Circle of Love. The first name refers to the literal event on which it is based, while the second and third refer to its spiritual meaning as an icon of the Trinitarian God.
This meaning is described by Joyce Huggett in her book The Smile of Love (p.176), which is where I first encountered Rublev’s icon. Huggett writes:
Inspired by the notion that God is three but also one, Andrei Rublev produced this simple but powerful portrayal of the Godhead. The angel on the right of the picture represents the Holy Spirit, the central figure portrays Jesus [note his fingers pointing to the chalice] and the figure on the left depicts the ever-youthful, ever-resplendent, never-changing Heavenly Father, who exists outside of time.
The first thing to notice about the icon is the circle in which the three figures are arranged:
This picture or icon is best viewed through a ring – a wedding ring, a dress ring or a ring made with the index finger and thumb. When looked at in this way it becomes obvious why the icon is sometimes called The Circle of Love. The three angels seem to form a circle and love so obviously flows from one to the other.
The icon thus illustrates the dance of love between the Persons of the Trinity that we heard about from C.S. Lewis in my previous post. It is a dance that we are drawn into as our eyes follow the gaze of each figure.
We start with the Holy Spirit, the figure on the right:
As the direction of the gaze, and the movement of the head, of the angel in the icon suggest, his ministry is to point us to Jesus and to draw us deeper and deeper into the life of the Holy Trinity. […] Although the Holy Spirit takes us to Jesus, Jesus does not hug our love to himself. In The Circle of Love, the movement of his head reminds us of this. He focuses on his Father’s face. It is almost impossible to look at the eyes of Jesus in this icon without feeling compelled to follow the direction of his gaze: to find ourselves in the presence of the Father.
Thus, just as the doctrine of the Trinity is not a static set of propositions but a drawing us into the life of the Triune God himself, so our own gaze at this icon is not static, but we are drawn into the dynamic relationship of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as our eyes move from one to the other.
As we move into the circle of love in this way, feeling the free-flowing affection, listening to the secrets being shared, and as we take our rightful place at the empty seat, we find ourselves refreshed by the divine love.
Thus the purpose of this icon (as indeed of every icon) is not to depict a person or an event, but to be a means of encounter with spiritual realities, in this case the supreme spiritual reality of God in Trinity. As Huggett writes:
An icon is not so much a work of art as a prayer. It was Andrei Rublev’s prayer that the people of Russia, in their need, would find themselves drawn into the circle of God’s love.
Rublev’s icon continues to draw us into that circle of love today – as does the Trinity whom it depicts.