Icon of the Holy Trinity

Rublev's Icon of the Holy Trinity (Св. Троицы)

Rublev's Icon of the Holy Trinity (Св. Троицы)

Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabaoth. Heaven and earth are full of your glory!
– Prophet Isaiah’s “Thrice-Holy” Hymn

The Holy Trinity is at the centre of all the Church’s worship, and the Holy Scriptures, the Church Fathers, the Hymns and Liturgy are all full of the confession that God is Three Persons sharing One, divine, Nature. The visible seal on all of this teaching is the Icon of the Holy Trinity.

Yet the Icon should not be seen as a visible culmination of centuries of philosophizing, debating, and theological contemplation. It is nothing less than the image of divine revelation concerning the nature of God.

The Old Testament Scriptures are replete with images, symbols, and shadows of the true nature of God. The prophet Isaiah’s curious three-times holy praise of the Lord is just one of many examples in which the divinely-inspired writers of the Bible “let slip” God’s tri-unity.

Fresco of the Hospitality of Abraham (4th Century)

Hospitality of Abraham, Via Latina Catacomb, c. 300AD

A crowning example of this is the description in Genesis of God’s appearance to Abraham and Sarah by the oaks of Mamre. As Abraham sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day…

…he looked up and saw three angels standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them and bowed down to the ground.

He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought and wash your feet. Rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little 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.”

And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah and said, Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it and make cakes. Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
– Book of Genesis, Chapter 18

Mosaic from Ravenna, 6th Century

Mosaic from Ravenna, 6th Century

Cast in the light of Christ’s revelation, this appearance of the Lord – called the “Hospitality of Abraham” – has always been understood as a manifestation of the Holy Trinity. The ineffable nature of God cannot be comprehended by man, yet God can reveal Himself – His triune nature – in ways which we can grasp, and record. What Scriptures recorded first, Christians recorded later, and the earliest images of the Hospitality of Abraham which survive are preserved in the catacombs of Italy (the 4th century).

15th century Greek Icon

Greek Icon, 1400s, explicitly labelled "Trinity"

Such a profound revelation of the Holy Trinity could not but move the Church, so it is unsurprising that over time, whilst the understanding of the Hospitality of Abraham remained the same, the imaging of it changed. It would be more correct to say that the image given to us by God was “purified”, showing forth the spiritual truth which lay behind the physical vision. In these Icons, dating from around 1000A.D onwards, the three “men” are explicitly shown as angels – with wings and halos. The focus is upon Them, seated around a table, their hands held up as in a blessing. The dwelling of Abraham is shown, as a tower (though it was, in reality, a tent), as is the oak of Mamre, with a rocky outcrop completing the scene. Abraham and Sarah are still shown, but smaller than the Trinity.

The pinnacle and definitive Icon of the Holy Trinity was revealed in the 15th century, at the hand of St Andrei Rublev. In this icon, Abraham and Sarah are completely absent. The Three Angels lean toward each other in mutual love, their hands held in a blessing directed toward the centre. The table is now unmistakably an altar, with even a small recess shown in which traditionally relics are placed. The various fruits, breads and meat shown on other icons are replaced with just a single chalice, representing the Holy Eucharist.

Each of the Three hold rods of divine authority, and sit elevated so that their feet do not touch the earth.

The Holy Trinity

The simplicity of the Icon is captivating. The Three Angels, whilst distinct persons, possess a striking similarity to each other, producing a harmony between Them. As They lean toward each other, we follow Their gaze from One, to the Other, and back again. As we witness the intimate conversation between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are invited to participate: not only in contemplation of the Icon, but in all aspects of our life.

All-Holy Trinity, have mercy on us.
Lord, cleanse us from our sins.
Master, pardon our iniquities.
Holy God, visit and heal us
For Thy Name’s sake.


More: Who’s Who in the Trinity Icon?

This entry was posted in Apologia, History, Iconography, Special Icons and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Icon of the Holy Trinity

  1. Poppy says:

    dont you ever wonder why God is in three people??

  2. iconreader says:


    My belief is that God is love, and if it were that God was just a single Person, then before the creation of the heaven and earth, toward Whom could the love be directed? Yet with God as Three Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – then even before the creation of anything, the love between the Three could still exist. With God as a single, autonomous, being, then before Creation He would be alone, and have no experience of what it is to love and be loved.

    Indeed, it could be that the love between the Three caused the impulse for creation, so that the Three could share their love with others.

    I think perhaps parents might understand that better than us, as (in an ideal situation!) a loving couple decide between themselves to bring a new life into the world, to share in their affection and devotion.

    • MikeT says:

      Yes, entirely, but remember the opening of John’s Gospel and look into the development of Christian theology. The Word is compared to the brightness of light in His relationship to the Father, both of whom are of one Being and from whom the Ghost arises. The Rublev icon can be read many times over.

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  7. KARIM says:

    thank you , Halleluja

  8. Dns says:

    “One of the most famous icons of all times is The Old Testament Trinity by the fifteenth-century Russian painter Alexander Rublev…based on the story of Abraham and the three strangers, whom Rublev depicts as angels, messengers of the unknowable God. Each represents one of the Trinitarian “persons”; they look interchangeable and can be identified only by their symbolically colored garments and the emblem behind each one. Abraham’s table has become an altar, and the elaborate meal he prepared has been reduced to the Eucharistic cup. The three angels sit in a circle, emblem of perfection and infinity, and the viewer is positioned on the empty side of the table. Immediately Rublev suggests that Christians can experience the truth of the Trinity in the Eucharistic liturgy, in communion with God and one another, and—recalling the Genesis story—in a life of compassion. The central angel representing the Son immediately attracts our attention, yet he does not return our gaze but looks toward the Father, the angel on his right. Instead of returning his regard, the Father directs his attention to the figure at the right of the painting, whose gaze is directed within. We are thus drawn into the perpetual circling motion described by Gregory of Nazianzus. This is not an overbearing deity, demanding exclusive loyalty and total attention to himself. We meet none of the prosopoi [persons] head-on; each refers us to the other in eternal personal dispossession. There is no selfhood in the Trinity. Instead there is silence and kenosis [emptying of self].”
    Karen Armstrong

  9. Dns says:

    “No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One. When I think of any One of the Three I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking of escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of That One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the Rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light.”
    Gregory of Nazianzus

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  11. Steven says:

    May I have permission to use the photo from the Via Latina catacomb?

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  13. David says:

    I was wondering if there were any photos of churches that used the old testament trinity, either in the dome, or at the front?

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