January 29 – Andrei Rublev

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Andrei Rublev, person of prayer

Very little is known for certain about the life of Rublev. The date of his birth is probably between 1360 and 1370. It is recorded that he died 29/1/1430, though even that is questioned. He was a Russian Orthodox monk, and it was the custom for iconographers to sign their work only as “A Monk of the Eastern Church”. Attention was to be focused on the subject of the icon, and not who painted (or wrote) it. Only a very few particularly talented and significant iconographers were remembered by name and their work identified. Rublev was certainly one of these.

He appears to have lived most of his life in the Trinity-St Sergius Monastery near Moscow. He may have come from a family of artisans, as the name Rublev comes from “Rubel” a particular tool in Russia. There is a legend that he was shy and calm by nature. The first reliable record is dated 1405, when he painted icons and frescoes in the Annunciation Cathedral, which still stands in the Kremlin in Moscow. Most of his work was destroyed. Although we know little about Rublev himself, we know a good deal about the turbulent times in which he lived. Warring princes destabilised the country, weakening it and making it vulnerable to invasion by Mongols and Taters. Plague swept through Russia early in the fifteenth century, and it was a time of brutality and corruption.

Rublev rose above all this to paint works that are marked by simplicity and peace. His most famous icon is the Old Testament Trinity, which is also adjudged by many as the greatest icon ever painted. It was done about 1410, and has a story of its own. Icons were protected by a finishing treatment of olipha (basically linseed oil), which darkened over time, and which, together with soot from candles and general dust and dirt, meant that a century after they were painted they were obscured. Rublev’s Trinity was over-painted several times in an attempt to preserve it, but eventually it was discarded.

In 1905 new techniques for cleaning old icons were developed, and some restorers happened upon this old board. A small test strip revealed exquisite work and it was sent to Moscow, where it lay until the revolution. In 1918 the first Minster for the Arts in the Communist government had it restored to its present condition and hung it in the Tretyakov Museum in Moscow, where it still resides, with several other undisputed works of the master. Apart from technique, the work of Rublev reveals deep insight into Orthodox theology and devotion. This is brought out in the film of his life made by Tarkovsky in 1966. The film was immediately suppressed by the Soviet Government, but was shown to great acclaim at the Cannes Festival of 1969. A censored version was then allowed into the Soviet Union, but it was cut even further for the American market in 1971. The version now available is disjointed, but shows Rublev as a man of prayer, deeply affected by the chaos of his time, and only rising to greatness after much suffering.

The Trinity icon depicts the Trinity as the three angels who appeared to Abraham at Mamre, and presents them as equal, bound together in a community of love. There is a space at the table so that person praying before this icon can be included in the life of heaven through the Eucharistic chalice that sits on the table.  This divine energy cannot be shaken, no matter what disasters may occur on earth. Surrounding all is God’s peace and light and life.

by Rev Dr Rob Gallacher