The “Holy Trinity” Icon – The “Troitsa”

The “Holy Trinity” icon is the Patronal icon of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. The gift of this icon to the Cathedral by Trinity’s Iconography Institute commemorates the Ordination and Consecration in April 2010, of The Rt. Rev. Michael J. Hanley, as 10th Bishop of Oregon.

The name “Troitsa” is the Russian name given to his icon by the most famous Russian iconographer, St. Andrei Rublev, who lived from about 1370 until 1430 C.E.; Rublev was a professed Orthodox monk living in St. Sergius Monastery, Moscow.


Three figures are seated at table, under a tree and in the vicinity of a large house, the home of Abraham and Sarah, at Mamre. These figures represent the Three Persons in One God, or The Holy Trinity. The icon underlines the sameness of the three figures by using a single identical image, repeated three times but robed differently to suggest three different qualities of the three Spirits, or Angels – the Three Aspects of God.


As iconographers, we must always refer to a prototype that has been approved by the Orthodox Church. Rublev’s icon was chosen as the prototype because it is the most well-known Russian icon, probably in the whole world, but certainly in Orthodoxy. In 1551 C.E. the Stoglav Synod, also known as the Council of 100 Chapters, decreed that henceforth, Rublev’s model was to be the prototype for all future Holy Trinity icons.The original of Rublev’s “Troitsa” icon is now housed in the Tretyakov Museum, Moscow. We are fortunate that it was not one of those looted by the Bolsheviks following the 1920s Revolution. Miraculously, it was spared the defacing and desecration suffered by so many icons at that time and the earlier, iconoclastic period. That it has survived, somewhat intact, for over 600 years is a great achievement. And while the icon has suffered at the hands of contemporary “restorers” and “curators”, nevertheless, we can still see some of the great master’s handiwork. In deciding to re-create this icon, we vowed to adhere as closely as possible to Rublev’s original, or the intent of the original. It is widely reported that most of Rublev’s icons did not come down to us intact and that in most cases, the gold was absent. We do not know if this was due to deterioration through age and storage, or theft of the gold. We  had to do some extensive research into what might have been in the several voids in the surviving prototype – our decision to use gold as the “sky” or background is perfectly logical since gold in an icon always represents the “light of Heaven”. It has only recently come to our attention that iconographers of old were particularly adroit in using gold as a reflector of light, (especially the light of candles and oil-lamps) and in so doing, bringing alive the images shown.


Rublev’s original, painted in egg-tempera, is some 56” high by 45” wide; ours is 48” high by 40” wide, closely approximate to the original. Our re-creation is written using acrylic paint and 23 carat gold, on a 7/8” thick wood panel., with a raised border surrounding the images. The “Troitsa” icon was written by Rublev in 1411 in commemoration of St. Sergeii Radonezh, (1314-1392 C.E.) to be installed in the newly-built, stone, Holy Trinity Cathedral in Moscow, replacing a wooden structure that had burned down. Although some 500 years intervened, both Trinity Cathedrals, the one in Moscow and the one in Portland, Oregon, share similar histories of their first wooden structures being burned down and, phoenix-like, replaced by new ones built of stone. In this, as in name, we share a common bond with Holy Trinity Cathedral, Moscow.


Genesis 18 tells us of the recognition and veneration by Abraham of God as Three Persons. Depending on which Bible edition or translation one reads, the story tells of three handsome (beautiful) young men, or three angels, arriving at the home of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham falls down on his knees, recognizing the Holy Ones and addresses just one of the men/angels. Curiously, the Scriptures tell us that these three respond sometimes in the singular, when “He” responds for all three and sometimes in the plural, when “they” respond as one.

The First Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.) promulgated the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity; it was later reaffirmed by the First Constantinople Council (381 C.E.). At the time Rublev wrote this icon, there was considerable discussion and heresy extant in the Russian Orthodox Church over the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity as being a requirement of Faith for all Christians.


In the Hebrew Testament, the animal of sacrifice was usually described as being a calf, whereas in the Christian Testament, the sacrificial animal is a lamb; this icon then refers us to the Hebrew Testament where this story is told.

All three angels are effectively repeats of the central figure, although with color alterations to their clothing. All three carry a rod or staff, surmounted by a cross, signifying that each is a Heavenly messenger. In this way, we are able to represent those who have not been seen on earth, without violating Orthodox Church Canons regarding our being forbidden to actually depict God the Father or the Holy Spirit, since they have not been seen.

The central figure, dressed in Court attire of heavy, earth-bound, clothing and formal hair-style typical of the Emperor’s Court at Byzantium, is understood to be Jesus Christ. Jesus wears a dark purple chiton , or tunic, decorated with a gold embroidered clavis, (decoration) on the shoulder and a chlamys (heavy cloak) of intense blue.

All of Christ’s garments drape in stiff, formal, classical folds; wings depict Him as an angel or winged messenger. Christ’s nimbus (halo) in this depiction is highly unusual in that the cruciform shape customary in every iconographic representation of Christ’s halo is here absent. It appears that Rublev’s intent was to show all three persons of the Trinity as equal, even to the depiction of their nimbii. In the original, it appears that all three nimbii were once covered in gold, now lost (but here, now restored). Christ points to the vessel on the table and inclines His head and body in the direction of the angel to His right (the position of honor at table); this is understood to signify Christ’s acceptance of His Father’s will as the ultimate sacrifice.

The angel on Christ’s right, is understood to be God the Father. He is dressed similarly to Christ, but with more ethereal colors and a lightness of fabric “not of this world”. His chlamys is a paler purple with much gold assiste (highlights) over an azure chiton. With His right hand God the Father blesses the chalice-like vessel containing the Sacrificial calf. This symbolizes the Father ordaining the eventual Sacrifice of His Son. This vessel and the white table-top are also seen as prefiguring the Chalice and Mensa (altar) of the Eucharist. The Father’s gaze is directed to the third angel…the third part of the Holy Trinity.

The angel on the viewer’s right is garbed similarly to the others…the ephemeral fabric and colors here represent the Holy Spirit descending and bringing new life to the Apostles. In Russian Orthodoxy, the liturgical color for Pentecost is green; the Holy Spirit’s chlamys is a light green, as is the floor; the green symbolic of new growth. In its “home” Cathedral, Rublev’s icon was the Pentecost Festal icon.

In the background we see the Oak Tree at Mamre, a precursor symbolic of the  “Wood of the Cross” and the building, the home of Abraham and Sarah. On the viewer’s right, the mountain is shown bending down its tip in an act of obeisance to and veneration of, the Holy Trinity.

The rectangular space in the front of the table is a curiosity. Traditionally, icons are written in the Byzantine “flat” style, with no conventional perspective used at all. However, this “hole” is in perfect perspective…perhaps Rublev’s way of saying, “we know all about perspective but it is not what we show in icons…we show the spiritual world and the subject’s spiritual qualities”. In fact, it depicts the space on the Eastern side of a mensa where traditionally, relics of saints and reserved, consecrated Eucharistic elements were set. (Today, we use the aumbrie for reserving consecrated elements.) The overall composition is one of extremely elegant proportions and defined circular movement in the center of the icon created by the bending bodies, the feet and floor pedestals, inclining of the heads and the building, tree and mountain. This icon is especially effective at drawing in the viewer and capturing his or her meditation.

Students and their instructor, Sherry Lynch,  donated their time, skills, paints and gold to create this icon as a gift from Trinity Iconography Institute to the Cathedral, in commemoration of Bishop Michael Hanley’s Consecration on April 10 and his Cathedral Seating on April 11, 2010. The icon was begun on February 1; it was completed on March 8 and was blessed by Bishop Hanley on April 11 during his Installation and Seating ceremonies. The Institute gratefully acknowledges the generous financial assistance from the Vestry and Family Ministry of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

Copyright of The Holy Trinity Icon is the property of the Trinity Iconography Institute.