I recently watched a movie that’s been on my Hulu queue for some time--a 1966, mostly black and white film by the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky on the 15th century medieval Russian artist named Andrei Rublev. Sound exciting? Maybe not to all… but it was on the Vatican’s recommended Best Films list, so I thought it was one probably worth seeing.
Of all the magnificent works of Christian art and architecture, I believe the Russian monk and artist Andrei Rublev’s (c. ~1360–1430) icon of the Holy Trinity still stands out. For how influential the icon has been for generations of artists and theologians, it doesn’t look like much. You may have seen the icon but never heard of the Russian monk and artist, Rublev, of whom little information is known (especially after he took his vow of silence!). Those who have seen the icon may never have recognized the Trinity present in the domestic scene of three people sitting around a table. Rublev’s icon is both simple and complex.
Even though the Catechism tells us the, “mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life” (CCC 234), we may still find it difficult to imagine what difference the Trinity makes in our daily life and actions.
The Sunday after Pentecost (this May 22) celebrates the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, or Trinity Sunday for short. I’m not giving a movie review or a systematic take on the Trinity, but Andrei Rublev did serve as a reminder of the great mystery and gift of God revealed in the three persons of the Trinity- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Rublev’s work is not simply a masterpiece of medieval Russian iconography, but also represents one of the most profound and concise theological reflections on the Trinity in history. Known by most non-Western Christians as The Hospitality of Abraham, the three persons seated around a table depicts the Old Testament scene of three angels visiting Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18:1-15) that Christian tradition sees prefiguring the Trinity fully revealed at the coming of Christ and the sending the Holy Spirit.
Andrei Tarkovsky produced Andrei Rublev and loosely based it on the life of the artist and his conviction of “Christianity as an axiom of Russia’s historical identity.” Tarkovsky’s hauntingly beautiful film, set in 15th century Russia, is not really a biography, but an exploration of the human longing for transcendence and freedom in God through faith and art in a world often characterized by the chaos and violence of sin. When first released, various scenes were censored or cut out entirely by government officials of the atheistic and authoritarian Soviet Union, whose oppressive ideology the film subtly criticized. Tarkovsky believed his Trinitarian faith led him to take risks for truth, not remain comfortably passive. It was for this reason that he produced such a compelling film.
For Rublev and Tarkovsky, the Trinity wasn’t just an abstract idea, but a power and a presence at work in the world and in every human heart. Their work highlights their belief that when we suppress God in our lives, we are cut off from the source of true freedom, beauty, creativity, and peace. Instead, the Trinitarian character of our faith should empower us to bring these qualities into every aspect of our lives- from art to politics, medicine and healthcare, business, and everything else.
Maybe the most “practical” truth about our belief in the Trinity is how it changes the way we look at things, especially our relationship with God, others, and ourselves. Tarkovsky’s movie is in black and white… until towards the end when it shows Rublev’s icons. The Trinity icon is the last, and it stands out in vivid color. Artists like Rublev and Tarkovsky don’t show us what God actually looks like, but they do depict the realities of everyday as they look like through the eyes of faith.
The community of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a model of mutual affection and other-centeredness that we can apply to our relationships with friends, family members, and those we encounter. For example, in our political views, are we seeking power and influence over others, or striving for cooperation in achieving the common good? The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work together in their respective functions of creating, redeeming, and sanctifying the world. Do our actions and lifestyles imitate this self-giving? By contemplating Trinitarian works of art like those of Rublev and Tarkovsky, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity helps our everyday thoughts and actions beautify and bless the world around us.
Recently, Michael Jordan quietly turned 50. As analysts, old teammates and competitors remember the dominant player he was (or, perhaps, is), they will undoubtedly discuss his dominant playing style, his unrelenting drive and his inhuman ability to constantly sink game winning jump shots. All these aside, though, as the greatest player to ever play the game, Michael’s legacy is founded in his constant desire to better himself and his teammates. Of course, with a résumé that includes 6 NBA championships, 2 Olympic Gold medals and an NCAA Title, it is unsurprising that his image has been found hanging in the bedrooms and gyms of aspiring kids across the country. I don’t know about you, but there is just something about seeing him dunk over Patrick Ewing that makes me want to work on my own game.
In fact, I would be so bold as to say that Michael’s contributions to the game has caused a multitude of kids to want to be “like Mike”. We all need role models and Michael Jordan has certainly been that for countless children. His iconic status has surely inspired greatness in those who have looked up to him. He remains the criterion to which all new basketball stars are compared. David Beckham, the international soccer star wears a number 23 jersey in honor of Jordan. For those Space Jam fans out there, he even inspired Bugs Bunny and the “ToonSquad” to upset the “Monstars.” That being said, while I admire what Michael has done for the game and for children in need of a strong male figure, it begs the question of why we don’t promote our own icons…
If Michael Jordan can find his way into the aspirational imagination of a young ballplayer in the form of a poster, why can’t St. Francis do the same? I’ve heard plenty of young people say they want to be like Michael Jordan, Abby Wambach or Peyton Manning when they grow up. I’ve heard adolescents speak of their admiration for Dr. King, Nelson Mandela or ABC. What I’ve not heard is the following, “I want to be just like St. Benedict when I grow up,” or “When I’m older, I want to be just like Elizabeth Ann Seton.”
The church’s rich history of iconography has had the market on bedroom décor long before “Fathead.com” has. Our icons draw us into meditation on the life of each particular saint, thereby inspiring the same greatness in each of us. Jordan’s Game 6 jump shot certainly inspires me to keep my calm and focus, regardless of how the cards are stacked, but my icon of St. Patrick inspires me to bring the Gospel to where it is so desperately needed. The poster I had of Roger Bannister reminded me that no barrier was out of reach, even a sub-four-minute mile, but my icon of St. George reminds me that running a four-minute mile is nothing if you aren’t doing it for the Lord.
Often I am reluctant to aspire for sainthood. Looking at my life and all its faults, I feel that sainthood is not only out of reach, but foolish to even hope for. St. Ignatius, though, who’s icon hangs in my office, reminds me that if one aspires for sainthood, just as he did, sainthood will indeed be granted. Casting aside worldly fame, St. Ignatius constantly looked to the saints to inspire him to saintly holiness.
Who’s image hangs in your room and what are they inspiring you to do? Standing only 5’7’’, I know that a life like Michael Jordan’s is well beyond my reach (literally), but I love to run, so Sir Roger Bannister remains a fixture. With the help of God’s grace, I know that sainthood is not beyond my reach either, so St. Patrick, St. George and St. Ignatius hang there as well, reminding me that we are all called to sainthood – shepherds, soldiers, and basketball players, too.
Michael Jordan’s legacy has surely impacted me and will continue to do so, but ultimately when I grow up I want to be a saint.
Patrick J. Sullivan is working on his MA in theology at the University of Notre Dame through the Echo Faith Formation Leadership Program and is currently serving in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.