One of the world’s most renowned depictions of the Holy Trinity was venerated in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior Sunday following the intervention of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin announced May 15 that Andrei Rublev’s 15th-century icon of the Trinity would be entrusted to the Russian Orthodox Church. Experts at the State Tretyakov Gallery, which has held the image since 1929, argued that it was too fragile to move.
But the icon arrived at the cathedral near the Kremlin on the evening of June 3, and was placed in a clear container regulating air temperature and humidity.
On June 4 — the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity in the Catholic Church and Pentecost (Trinity Day) in the Russian Orthodox Church — Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia celebrated a Divine Liturgy in the icon’s presence.
Kirill, who has controversially supported Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, thanked the Russian president for securing the icon’s transfer.
He said: “At the direction of our President, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, this image was transferred to our cathedral so that it would remain here for a certain period of time, during which most people would be able to approach this great icon and pray. Pray for the unity of our people, for the unity of the Church, and for the strengthening of the Orthodox faith among us.”
The icon, created in the early 1400s, was originally located in the iconostasis of Trinity Cathedral at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, Russia’s most famous monastery. The image is known as “The Hospitality of Abraham” as it depicts three angels who visited Abraham at the Oak of Mamre in Genesis 18:1-8, but it is also seen as a representation of the Trinity.
Fr. Mark Drew, an English pastor who holds a doctorate in ecumenical theology from the Institut Catholique in Paris, told The Pillar that the icon was highly significant not only in terms of art history but also theologically.
“It is known as an icon of the Trinity but of course Rublev was sufficiently theologically astute to know that the Trinity is only representable by means of symbolism: in this case, the typological use of the Old Testament story of the Hospitality of Abraham at Mamre,” he said via email.
“Its theological depth as well as its artistic perfection are the reasons why it has inspired so many copies and so much commentary. I myself used it this year to illustrate my Trinity Sunday homily.”
Commenting on Putin’s motivation for the transfer, he said: “This is clearly yet another example of his desire to use the Russian Orthodox Church to bolster his regime. By favoring the Church, he hopes to gain moral prestige in the eyes of the Russian people.”
“It’s a tactic which both the Tsarist regime and Stalin used before him. Significant, too, that Stalin made a U-turn in his religious policy, relaxing persecution in time of war because he saw Orthodoxy as an ally of nationalist fervor.”
The Moscow Patriarchate said in May that the icon, which is 56 inches by 45 inches, would be displayed at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior for a year before being restored to the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius.
But Tretyakov Gallery conservators opposed the plan, fearing that the image could be permanently damaged by the move. According to Russian media, experts said that the icon had been “subject to de-conservation” when it returned briefly to the monastery around 40 miles northeast of Moscow in July 2022.
Late last month, Kirill fired the Moscow Patriarchate’s art restoration expert for allegedly obstructing the transfer.
The Tretyakov Gallery has said that the icon must return from Christ the Savior cathedral no later than June 19, to undergo planned restoration work. But Russian Orthodox authorities believe the image will be returned eventually to its monastic home.
The Rome-based art historian Elizabeth Lev told The Pillar that the essential question was whether the icon was a work of art or an object of devotion.
“Should it be presented out of any context it was created for in order to safeguard it from harm, or should it be allowed to fulfill its original function and inspire people to prayer?” she asked. “The Pietà is behind safety glass at St. Peter’s after an attack, but would it be better off in a museum?”
“The interesting part is the political wrestling match here. Putin moved the work into a church and there is an outcry that he is politicizing religion, but when the Hagia Sophia is transformed from museum to mosque, there was very little outcry,” she said via email.
“A timeless image of the Trinity, a proclamation of our common trinitarian faith produced by one of the greatest icon writers of all time should of course be of interest to Catholics. But the real concern for us is bearing witness to what the icon represents, which is what makes it precious, rather than where the object will be displayed.”
“As a note, the Mona Lisa is a portrait of a Renaissance woman that has become the economic motor of the Louvre, and has no religious value or meaning whatsoever. If that is what Russian art historians think of the Trinity, I think Rublev would be scandalized.”
Andrei Rublev painted the icon in honor of St. Sergius of Radonezh, who founded the Trinity Lavra monastery in 1337.
In a June 4 address at Christ the Savior cathedral, Kirill evoked the world of St. Sergius. He said that the saint lived “in an age of division,” in which medieval Russia was divided into principalities that fought each other for primacy, wealth, and resources.
He noted that “St. Sergius, aware of all the tragedy of the situation in which Russia found itself, aware that this is why it fell into slavery to foreigners, called on the Holy Trinity to overcome divisions.”
“Today, by the grace of God, there is no such strife in our homeland, but how much strife there is in human society,” Kirill said. “How much conflict there is in family life, in communities, in our society, when one political group is not just competing with another, but, seeking power, is trying to weaken all the others!”
“All this is a tribute to the times, a tribute to a certain political fashion that has come to us from outside. But we Russian people, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike, who consider themselves faithful sons of the Fatherland, must remember that any internecine strife, any internecine conflict weakens both the individual and society and, most dangerously, the country.”
“Today we must remember the precepts of St. Sergius and arrange for unity, without which there really can be no prosperous future of our Fatherland. Through his prayers, may the Lord keep the Orthodox faith in our people, may he keep our people in unity, and our homeland — united and undivided.”
A leaked Pentagon document said that the U.S. believed that Russia had suffered 189,500 to 223,000 casualties, including 35,500 to 43,000 killed in action, in Ukraine up to February this year.
There are persistent reports of divisions among Russia’s military factions in Ukraine. But the Kremlin insists that what it describes as a “special military operation” to secure the rights of Russian speakers in the country is going to plan.