Holy Trinity Icon (ca AD 1400)
I have always been fascinated by Eastern Orthodox icons, beginning around the time Martine and I began visiting Greek festivals in the Los Angeles area. Perhaps the greatest master of the icon was the Russian Andrei Rublev (Андрей Рублёв), born sometime between 1360 and 1370 and died sometime between 1427 and 1430. Not much is known about his life, but his work continues to inspire. In fact, I have seen a number of copies of his icons at different Greek Orthodox churches.
To the untutored eye, there is something rigid about the typical icon, with its gold-leaf background and its lack of attention to perspective and even realism. Most subjects are of God, the Blessed Virgin, and various saints. We are not privy to the mind of God and must therefore be respectful of any representation of Him or the saints. These icons are objects of worship which are venerated by the faithful as they enter the narthex of an Orthodox church.
Rublev’s Icon of Our Lady of Vladimir (ca 1406)
However rigid the style may be, the facial expressions of the Blessed Virgin and the Infant Christ are incredible: On one hand, Mary seems to see the condemnation and crucifixion to come, while Christ seems to be staring at her with a look of purpose and strength.
Icon of Christ Pantocrator (Detail)
According to a famed dealer in Russian icons:
The iconographic type of Pantocrator (Almighty or Omnipotent in Greek) shows Christ as the Lord of the Universe, co-equal and co-eternal to the Father. The iconography originates in Byzantine art and is known since the sixth century. The earliest known surviving example is the icon of Pantocrator from Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Later on, gigantic images of the Pantocrator, represented half-length with a book of Gospels in his hand, can be seen on the mosaics and frescoes of Byzantine cupolas. In Russia, this iconography usually appeared in the Deisis Tier, the main part of the iconostasis, but could also be used for independent devotional images.
In Greek Orthodox churches, the image of Christ Pantocrator usually appears in the cupola above the nave.
Over the years I feel I have come to appreciate the artistry of these icons. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend you see Andrei Tarkovsky’s great film Andrei Rublev (1966), which is available in DVD from the Criterion Collection. It is a hagiography of sorts, and rightly so as the Russian Orthodox church has declared Rublev to be a saint in 1988.