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24.02.06 Milner-Gulland, Andrey Rublev

24.02.06 Milner-Gulland, Andrey Rublev

Robin Milner-Gulland’s (hereafter M-G) concise book, Andrey Rublev: The Artist and his World introduces the English language reader to Andrei Rublev (1360s-1430), a Russian Orthodox monk and an internationally recognized painter of icons and church frescos. He became a key figure in Russian national consciousness largely because of his masterpiece, the Holy Trinity icon; for five centuries, it was the festal icon of the stone church built in honor of the recently deceased St. Sergius of Radonezh (1314-92) at the prestigious Holy Trinity Sergius monastery outside of Moscow. Rediscovered and restored in the early twentieth century, it was placed in the Moscow Tretiakov Gallery until June 2023 when Putin ordered its removal to the Moscow Cathedral of the Savior for public worship related to the “special operation” in Ukraine (The BBC’s on-line News article, “Ukraine War, Holy Trinity Painting on Display in Moscow” by Steven Rosenberg includes an excellent photo of the icon that reflects its scale).

M-G’s introduction underscores how little direct evidence we have about Rublev: scholars rely mostly on saints’ lives and chronicles. He therefore dedicates himself to building up a more general picture from the available material and cultural context, keeping a discussion of scholarly speculations to a minimum. In the first chapter, M-G immediately directs the reader’s attention to the Holy Trinity icon. He gives us a good idea of its appearance, state of restoration, and thematic content. He devotes ensuing chapters both to contextualizing and describing Rublev’s broader corpus. He offers historical background (chapters 2 and 3) and he discusses Rublev’s life and works (chapter 4). He traces the growth and impact of the St. Sergius Holy Trinity Monastery in fostering a monastic diaspora to the North. This diaspora generates iconographic works of the “Rublev age,” i.e., before Moscow’s rise, which he also discusses in later chapters. In chapter 5, he isolates characteristics that he believes distinguish Rublev as an artist through a method of comparison with contemporary or earlier works (chapter 5). He then turns to Rublev’s later reception in Russia by the educated westernized elite (chapter 6). Tracing the impact of Rublev and his masterpiece up through the modern period, he ends with a brief discussion of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Andrei Rublev (1966), which has been available in the West. He calls the short final chapter (7) a “Summing up.” A “Note on Icons” and an extensive chronology follows; the latter begins in 862 and ends with Rublev’s canonization in 1988.

M-G enriches and documents his discussion with 58 reproductions of churches, chronicle miniatures, embroideries, frescoes, symbolist art and even Tarkovsky’s film. Lengthy captions sometimes give valuable information that is not included in the text. Some of them are not convenient for the reader. For instance, in chapter 1, devoted solely to the Trinity icon, he includes a reproduction of Feofan Grek’s hagiographical icon of St. Michael (fig. 7). The caption refers as a point of comparison to Rublev’s Zvenigorod fresco of St. Michael, reproduced in Chapter 4 without giving the figure number, 26.

Overall, the book has the quality of a survey. M-G does not create an overarching narrative that could develop his concepts, tie his chapters together and be summarized in a conclusion. As a result, important information can be scattered about, or appear somewhat randomly. Thus, although he briefly introduces the Eastern Orthodox Church in his Introduction, information on icons crucial to the next chapter on the Holy Trinity icon and further discussion of Rublev’s corpus is spread throughout the book (15, 34-5, 96, and the “Note on Icons”).

In chapter 3 (49-50), M-G’s discussion of the 1380 battle of Kulikovo field, replete with a quotation from the early twentieth century poet, A. Blok, inexplicably focuses our attention on this event’s memorialization in a work called “Beyond the Don” (Zadonshchina). Picking up on a favorite philological topos, he discusses this fifteenth-century work’s poetic relationship to the twelfth-century Kievan “Tale of Armament of Igor’” which, he notes in passing, inspired Borodin’s opera. At the same time, M-G passes quickly over an important tradition associating St. Sergius and his monks with Prince Dmitrii Donskoi’s epic victory over the Tatars at Kulikovo field, even though this tradition was critical to the establishment of St. Sergius’ cult and thus informs the reception of Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon. [1]

This lack of an overarching framework of analysis ultimately gives M-G’s book the feel of an undergraduate lecture, using the Rublev theme to present a broader introduction to early Russian culture. At the same time, the author’s primary orientation as a modernist means that he tends not to offer explanations based in knowledge of Rublev’s contemporary culture; instead, he gives us “impressionistic” comments and reactions, as well as personal and other digressions. Throughout, M-G anachronistically views Rublev as an artist, a vocation which did not exist at the time, rather than as a monk. Accordingly, he ignores the religious/spiritual context of Rublev’s life and work, which arguably is at their core.

M-G does not specifically relate his discussion of Christianity to the particular spiritual culture of Hesychasm that influenced both St. Sergius and Rublev. Only in Chapter 5 does M-G acknowledge Rublev’s religiosity, but in negative terms: Rublev “can hardly have escaped...Hesychasm;” and, M-G adds (as though speaking for himself), “positivistic historians” see Hesychasm as “disastrously retrograde” (82, 85). A mystical-liturgical ascetic spirituality based on a theology of the Trinity and Divine Light, Hesychasm became official Eastern Orthodox doctrine from the mid-fourteenth century and influenced both the arts and writing. It reached Russia from Bulgaria and Serbia. The Bulgarian Kiprian, an active proponent of this trend, served as Metropolitan in Rus’ during the age of St. Sergius (1381-2; 1390-1406), and was allied politically with St. Sergius in disputes with the Moscow Grand Prince. [2]

Countering Western “rationalist” influences, Hesychasm affirmed the reality of our experiential participation in the Trinity’s Divinity through uncreated light deifying the whole body, received through contemplation, prayer, and liturgical practice. Thus, it was not only ascetic, but, as expressed in iconography, deeply joyous and inclusive in essence. The impact of St. Sergius’ hesychast spirituality on Rublev may explain Rublev’s reputation as a superior contemplative, and his radiant artistic vision--based in a refined use of light and form as well as what M-G calls “an unforgettable sense of big-heartedness, openness to all experience, gravity...” (124-5).

The bibliography reflects the author’s modernist orientation; it also shows his reliance on Soviet and related post-Soviet traditions of art history, which in turn were influenced by Western scholarship on Italian art of the Trecento and Renaissance. Numerous scholars have explored early Russian iconography and Rublev’s art in its Byzantine context in the last twenty years and more. M-G fails even to draw on important studies of the icon’s semiotics and system of perspective, leaving him vulnerable to naïve misinterpretations. He ignores contemporary and earlier studies that investigate Rublev’s religious context and influences. [3] Ultimately, by leaving religion out of his discussion, M-G also leaves us without a basic definition of an icon: rooted in the theology of Christ’s Incarnation, the icon represented the “image” of a transcendental prototype, a kind of window onto the invisible; its symbolic language was the viewer’s path to a higher spiritual reality. [4]

M-G’s opening chapter on the Holy Trinity icon reflects the limitations of his approach. Admittedly, he does acknowledge the presence of esoteric meaning by quoting the early twentieth-century mystic philosopher P. Ouspensky: “to understand the noumenal world, we must seek a hidden meaning in everything accessible to the artist alone...[the artist] must be a magician” with the “gift of making others see what they do not see by themselves.” M-G then undercuts this observation by equating this “seeing” with the “aura” of the Trinity living on in postage stamps, and sculpture (25)! In fact, the icon’s hidden meaning resides in symbolism rooted in Rublev’s contemporary spirituality. A brief analysis by the reviewer of the icon will demonstrate how the painter’s liturgical mystical orientation offers explanations of its poetic qualities, meaning, and function as well as its importance for national identity and Vladimir Putin.

Rublev created the Holy Trinity icon (fig. 2) at the height of his powers, after having worked in the Kremlin Annunciation cathedral, the princely family’s church, and on the cathedral of the Mother of God, in Vladimir, the Metropolitan see. He finds a way to honor St. Sergius’ worship of the Trinity by drawing on a traditional composition called the “Hospitality of Abraham,” depicting Abraham’s visitation by three “men” on their way to Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:1ff). These men take the form of three angels seated around or behind a table as Abraham and Sarah serve them a meal that is typically represented by a chalice-bowl (or three chalices), by loaves of bread and by implements for eating (figs. 4, 5). According to ancient exegetical and iconographic tradition, the angels prototypically symbolize the Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit; the meal, blessed by this Trinity, is a prototype of the sanctified Eucharistic offerings signifying Christ’s mystical sacrificed body. In medieval Russia, this composition became an icon for veneration on the feast of Pentecost celebrating the Trinity’s redemptive presence in the Church, i.e., the Holy Spirit’s descent after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection to mystically sanctify the bread and wine during every Eucharist, and initiate the faithful into Christ’s mystical body and the Trinity’s Wisdom.

In Rublev’s composition, a central chalice becomes the icon’s controlling visual metaphor. The angels’ hands gesture towards it, while their bodies themselves create the outline of a chalice, alluding to their shared personal participation in the Son’s sacrifice. At the same time their faces and gestures seem to open out to the viewer, spiritually embracing him in their own mystical circle that echoes the chalice’s rounded rim, bringing him face to face with the Trinity’s higher redemptive plan. This evocation of divine Presence in turn lifts the viewer up in a silent awe and mystery, so that they may experience a peace and reconciliation in the face of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice and participate in the angels’ own inner accord and deeper knowledge. M-G’s explanation of the circle is more down to earth; he suggests, without further evidence, that Rublev was inspired by the small round pilgrim’s badges or other similar tokens. He leaves the reader unaware of the many possible levels of motivation of this explored by scholarship, not the least of which is the religious-mystical.

The uniqueness of Rublev’s icon derives from its spirit of hesychast contemplation. Rublev projects the composition onto a symbolic level to allow us to enter into the Trinity’s shared contemplation of its redemptive work through the Church. Thus, he divests the icon of historically oriented detail deriving from Genesis 18. By depicting one large chalice, and making it the icon’s controlling metaphor, he projects the meal’s mystical liturgical meaning onto the forefront; Accordingly, other historical references, such as Abraham and Sara and table implements are absent. Moreover, Rublev lifted references to Abraham’s locale in Genesis 18--“tree,” the “tent” and an additional mountain-rock--out of the temporal-spatial realm by placing them behind the angels’ heads respectively as if the objects of their shared thoughts. Miniaturized, they become allusions to the Providence in Christ’s sacrifice. In this reading, the architectural structure, a kind of portico, refers to the founding of the Church as a “house” of the Trinity’s Wisdom; the leafy tree faces in its direction to allude to the Son’s resurrection and deification of human nature through the Church; and the luminescent rock, not typically found in this composition, also facing the portico, alludes to the creation as redeemed through the Church. M-G, when mentioning these “token reminders of significant objects (22),” scatter-shots several possible explanations for the rock-mountain: among others, they include the mountain on which Isaac was sacrificed, the stone upon which Jacob laid his head (Genesis 28), and the magical folklore stone, Alatyr.

When M-G addresses the importance of the Trinity as a subject, he inappropriately mentions the 1051 split between the Orthodox and Catholic churches over the Trinitarian doctrine of the filioque. What is relevant here, however, is Hesychasm’s key focus on the Trinity’s mystical-liturgical communication of its Oneness outside itself, referenced in the icon by the three angels’ hand gestures towards the single Chalice. When M-G asserts that there is “no attempt at perspective on the table” on which the chalice rests, he is judging from the viewpoint of Western linear perspective rather than iconic inverted perspective which he does not adequately acknowledge or discuss. The chalice is, from the viewpoint of inverse perspective, not only the angels’ but the icon’s focal point.

M-G again leads us in the wrong direction when he writes that the chalice contains a “rather shocking splash of red...once holding a sacrificial calf’s head.” (He increases our shock when he describes the “astonishing” coloration of the central angel, a “deep red” that “creeps like a bloodstain” [20]). This sensationalist description of the color “red” inappropriately injects an element of western realism into this mystical composition. In fact, this “red,” when not illuminated by an inner light as in the left-hand angel, is closer to a brown-purple characteristic of Byzantine royal symbolism.

If read from the liturgical-mystical viewpoint that was likely Rublev’s frame of reference, this icon pays homage to St. Sergius’ contemplative spirituality, his sense of the divine transcendence, compassion, and Wisdom. At the same time, the cult of St. Sergius that developed in the mid-fifteenth century endowed this icon with broader national significance. As noted above, fifteenth-century narratives about the battle of Kulikovo field set the stage for the cults of St. Sergius and of the Trinity icon as intercessors for the Russian land against its enemies. By the time of the centralization of the state under Ivan IV (1530-84), there was a long tradition of royal patronage of the OTT icon; during Ivan IV’s reign, a prestigious church council named Rublev’s icon an official iconographic model for representing the Trinity. Complex iconographic programs spread throughout the Kremlin and elsewhere highlighted Rublev’s variant of the Holy Trinity to symbolize Muscovy’s destiny and providence.

Vladimir Putin was doubtless aware of these traditions when, against the advice of the Tretiakov Gallery’s curators and experts, he moved Rublev’s Trinity icon from the museum, where M-G admired it as a work of art, to its original liturgical context, in this case, the central Cathedral Church of Our Savior in Moscow. Putin may have understood that this icon was a fitting object of devotion for a people facing the ultimate sacrifice, implicitly lifting his “special military operation” to the level of national crusade in the name of a higher Providence. Patriarch Kirill, having earlier claimed that any soldiers killed will have their sins “washed away,” could now hope that the deceased’s kin might find comfort and meaning by contemplating the redemptive power of sacrifice in this icon and accepting Putin’s higher “wisdom.”

Putin displayed his powers as an autocrat and master propagandist when he moved the Trinity icon to the Church. Appreciating its deep symbolic resonance for his people, based in their own religious orientation (that resurfaced after the Soviet repression), he likely believed that it would harness and direct the people’s faith to his own nationalistic ends. M-G’s chapter on the icon’s reception is from the point of view of the westernized elite viewing the icon as an artistic work, rather than the faith community. Thus, despite its general interest, it gives us a very partial understanding of the icon’s meaning and impact as liturgical art.

M-G’s compact book has a broad historical scope, is full of mostly accurate information, and succeeds in providing the uninitiated reader with an overview of Rublev’s life, work and times. Its excellent illustrations deepen its appeal. Although M-G’s approach and his scholarly sources are in many respects limited, his survey is as interesting and entertaining as a lively university lecture by a knowledgeable and engaged professor, satisfied to present the course of Russian history and culture through a “modern” perspective. He has provided the first English language introduction to a key figure in Russian and even world culture. However, it is regrettable that the book does not fully live up to the responsibilities that this entails. We look forward to further English language publications that draw on the scholarship that helps place this medieval monk-painter within his own cultural-ideological milieu.



1. David B. Miller, Saint Sergius of Radonezh, His Trinity Monastery and the Formation of the Russian Identity, DeKalb Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press (2010), 63-7.

2. Miller, Saint Sergius, 31-41.

3. B. Uspensky, The Semiotics of the Russian Icon, edited by S. Rudy. Lisse, the Netherlands, (1976); P. Hunt, Andrei Rublev’s Old Testament Trinity Icon in Cultural Context,” in The Trinity-Sergius Lavra in Russian History and Culture, edited by Vladimir Tsurikov. Holy Trinity Seminary Press, Jordanville N.Y., (2005), 99-122.

4. Irina Yazykova, Hegumen Luka (Golovkov), “The Theological Principles of Icon and Iconography,” A History of Icon Painting, Kate Cook, transl. Grand-Holding Publishers, Moscow, (2007), 9-28; L. Ouspensky, “The Meaning and Language of Icons,” in L. Ouspensky and Vl. Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, New York (1989), 23-51.