Why Does Putin Need Rublev’s The Trinity?
May 24, 2023
  • Aleksander Blekher

    Religion scholar
Religion scholar Alexander Blekher discusses the transfer of The Trinity by Andrei Rublev, one of the most famous Russian icons, to the Russian Orthodox Church, comparing the Christian veneration of icons with divine objects in pagan cults.
In mid-May, Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to donate Andrei Rublev’s The Trinity to the Church. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), said that he had asked for the icon only for two weeks, for Pentecost, but Putin generously ordered to have the icon taken out of the museum and returned to the ROC. According to the announced plan, the icon will be exhibited for a year in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, then it will be restored, before being transferred to the Trinity Lavra of St Sergius, located 70 kilometers from Moscow.

Art historians warn that the removal of The Trinity from the Tretyakov Gallery, where it has been kept, will have catastrophic consequences. According to workers there, last year when the icon was taken out of the museum for a short time, serious damage was done to it.
The Trinity, a 15th century work by Andrei Rublev and the most famous Russian icon, for many centuries remained essentially unknown. Source: Wiki Commons
Why is The Trinity unique?

The Trinity is one of the most famous icons painted in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Its painter is the Moscow master Andrei Rublev, who lived and worked in the first half of the 15th century. It was a time when Orthodox culture developed rapidly; the Russian Church borrowed and creatively rethought much of the ancient Byzantine culture, bringing in its own artistic innovations. Rublev was one of the “headliners” of this new creative school. His name was widely known, and judging by the Russian Chronicle, he was involved in decorating the most famous Russian churches.

It is all the more tragic that not much remains of his personal legacy – like the works of art from this period broadly. The Trinity is the only reliably attributed individual work of Rublev (besides it, there are also frescoes that he did, though most likely together with a team of assistants). In other words, the Chronicle glorifies the name of the great master, but no one knew or saw his work.

For many centuries, this icon was essentially unknown to anyone. It hung in the main temple of the Trinity Lavra of St Sergius – the largest monastery around Moscow – among other icons, eventually started to seriously deteriorate and was covered with a metal frame that covered up a large part of the icon’s design. Several times the icon was “refurbished” by craftsmen who were much less skilled than Rublev.

In 1920, the new Soviet government ruthlessly confiscated from the Orthodox Church a great many icons with potential artistic value. They were declared public property and handed over for examination and classification to professional researchers and restorers. At that time, the latest paint layers were removed, and it was convincingly proven that it was the very The Trinity of Rublev mentioned in the Chronicle. Meanwhile, the icon, having been restored to its original view as much as possible, took its place of honor in the Tretyakov Gallery – the main state art museum of Russia.
Vladimir Putin with Patriarch Kirill (center). In May 2023, Putin decided to hand over The Trinity icon to the Church - to the dismay of art historians and experts who warned that this could cause serious damage to the icon. Source: Wiki Commons
Why do people venerate this icon?

Now, at the request of Patriarch Kirill and on the personal order of President Putin, the icon is being returned to the Church for everyday liturgical use. Experts and restorers are panicking, as it is a canvas covered with vegetable paints more than 500 years old. The piece is extremely fragile; in the museum, The Trinity was subject to almost extraordinary security, as well as constant, additional restoration measures. It is not possible to provide this in a church. After the last time, when the icon was taken to a monastery for worship for just a few days, restorers had to urgently restore more than 60 points of damage to the paint layer and the board. Most likely, the icon will die rather quickly if it is kept in a church around the clock.

My view on this situation is that of a religious scholar who at one time studied the dogma and teachings of various religions, including classical (“Nicene”) Christianity, to which the Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches belong. And it is precisely from the standpoint of the dogmatic teaching and theology of the Christian faith that the current situation seems to me doubly absurd.

The official teaching of the ancient Christian churches says that an icon is not to be revered by itself. This is the difference between Christianity and the ancient pagan worship of idols. An icon is revered insofar as it is a symbol of the sacred essence depicted on it. That is why it is not the board itself or the paints that are important, but the religious feeling that a person experiences when looking at any icon – no matter if it is old or painted yesterday. In this sense, theoretically, for a believing Christian, The Trinity has only historical value, and nothing prevents it from being kept at a museum – especially since once a year it has been carefully moved to the church located at the Tretyakov Gallery, where a microclimate is maintained so that prayers could be held in front of it. This is important:
“The icon is not subjected to any desecration in the museum; moreover, it continues to be surrounded by religious reverence, and no one would think to offend the feelings of believers.
Christianity and religious archaism

But a completely different matter is archaic religious culture, which dates back to the Neolithic and was the basis of ancient polytheism. In religious archaism, there is the concept of “fetish” or “teraphim” – a special object into which a certain spirit is literally infused, which uses the object as a kind of host. The object is inextricably linked with the spirit that inhabits it; it is filled with energy from sacrifices and reverence, and over time becomes more and more powerful.

An example here is, say, the Trojan Palladium, the sacred oak of Dodona or the statue of Artemis from the temple at Ephesus. The ancient Greeks believed that all these were literally filled with divine power, and they valued them precisely as such. Pagan gods and demons are not omnipotent or all-pervading; they choose a suitable focus for their efforts on earth, and from that moment, the object by itself becomes divine in its own way.

The Christian One God is a being of a completely different nature. His power is evenly distributed throughout the universe and does not need material carriers. He can manifest his power through any object – or even directly affect reality or the human psyche. At least this is what was taught by the historical founders of Christian churches and the fathers of church councils.

Thus, one gets the feeling that the current zealots in favor of returning the icon to the Church do not think at all in the Christian, but rather in the ancient-pagan paradigm. The icon for them – a concrete, physical icon – has a special mystical power just by itself, as a board with paints. It is as if some separate, benevolent spirit lives in it, or as if you can conjure the Christian God by tying him to a painted piece of wood. In such a pagan paradigm, even the destruction of the icon due to improper keeping becomes a lesser evil than the powerful object – the vessel of a wonderful spirit, outside the place of worship. In essence, if this fetish is destroyed, it will be a kind of sacrifice in itself, like how during the burials of pagan leaders, prized, sacred amulets were broken and thrown into their graves.

Or maybe God himself, from the point of view of these people, should be angry because a particle of his power, bound by a spell inside the board, is being held as if “in captivity” – that the damned communists have locked the divine spirit in the museum, “reducing” its magical power? For the archaic, this approach would be quite normal.

In “grassroots,” “folk” Christianity, such views were widespread for many centuries; this is the so-called phenomenon of “double belief” or “dual faith,” when, formally confessing Christianity, people in fact continue to perceive the world in a completely pagan way. Back in the 19th century, Orthodox preachers complained that peasants often, for example, perceived different icons of the Virgin as separate holy beings, each endowed with a separate will.

It was only in the 19th century that this was perceived by priests as a problem.
And now it has emerged that such a village/pagan view of the essence of the icon is shared (and voiced!) by the leadership of one of the largest Christian churches in the world.
From the point of view of religious studies, this is a fantastically interesting case that deserves separate research. From the point of view of the preservation of historical Russian and world culture – it is, alas, a real tragedy, as the last work of Rublev risks being lost to humanity forever in the very near future.

P.S. Right now, the "struggle for the icon" continues. To everyone's surprise, a team of experts from Tretyakov Gallery convened and stated that, given its current state, the icon is not subject to transfer. It is very difficult to predict how events will unfold from here, though one way or another, the state will have the last word.
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