The Icon of the Hospitality of Abraham

“Moreover, we decree that from henceforth the image of the Lord Sabaoth shall no longer be depicted or made into an icon, for no one has seen the Lord Sabbaoth, that is, the Father, in the flesh.”
[Decree of The Great Council of Moscow, 1666]

hy do certain Orthodox continue to accept and to paint false images of God the Father, and why do others except this calumny especially when it is clearly told by the Holy Fathers, the 7th Ecumenical Council (see below), the decree of the Great Council of Moscow in 1666, Council of Constantinople in 1780 that it is forbidden?

This icon is based on a passage in the book of Genesis concerning the visitation of three angels [chapt. 18]


And the Lord appeared unto him [Abraham] in the plains of Mamre: and he [Abraham] sat in the tent door in the heat of the day. And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself towards the ground, and said My Lord, if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: Let a little water, I pray you, be refreshed, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort your hearts[18:1-5]

Reading on we see that Abraham addresses one of the angels in the singular, as thou and Lord [Kyrios], while the three together are spoken of with the plural, as you [hymeis]. It becomes even more clear as one reads on that one of the three angels is a type of the Incarnate Word, God the Son who will in the future take human form.

After Abraham’s conversation with the Lord, we read that two of the “men” left and went into Sodom, while the Lord remained and continued His conversation with Abraham:

“And the men turned their faces from thence, and went toward Sodom, but Abraham stood yet before the Lord.” The scriptures continue: “And the Lord went His way as soon as He had left communing with Abraham.” The Church Fathers refer to the three angels as a sign of the Trinity.

As a matter of historical fact, painting the Trinity in icons was received in the East from the Italian Renaissance, more specifically with Roman Catholicism. By the 14th century, the image of all three Persons together will begin to be painted. This art was later copied by the 15th century Russian and then, a century later, by Greek iconographers; and henceforth by others.

In the East depicting of God the Father had begun as early as the 11th century. At this time, he was visualized as the white haired and white bearded God the Father, although rarely. He was identified with the Prophet Daniel’s “the Ancient of Days” by these artists contrary to the Church which taught that Daniel’s vision referred to Christ, which explains why “the Ancient of Days” is iconographically depicted with a cross inside the halo or nimbus.

To understand why it is forbidden to depict God the Father it is first necessary to understand why of all the Persons of the Trinity only God the Son (i.e., Jesus Christ) can appear on icons. In his book against the iconoclasts, On The Holy Icons, Saint Theodore the Studite says:

“…Christ is both circumscribed and uncircumscribed. In respect to His uncircumscribable Father, since He is uncircumscribable…”

Christ is both circumscribable and uncircumscribable because He is both God and man. We can not depict His divine nature because He, Christ, the Son of God, has never been seen in His divine nature [uncircumscribed = without form, substance], but Christ, the man, can be depicted in his incarnation because He is circumscribable as a man. He has a form and dimension, He has physical attributes.

That which is circumscribable [with form and substance] must come from something else which is circumscribable.

Saint Theodore continues:

But in respect to His [Christ’s] birth from a circumscribed mother, with good reason He has an image, just as His mother’s image is expressed in Him. But if He should not have an image, then He would not be from a circumscribed mother, and is of only one origin, namely the paternal-which destroys the divine economy.”

Hence, God the Father cannot be depicted — He has never been “circumscribed” —because neither His Person nor His substance is circumscribable. He has never appeared in a circumscribable form. No one has known the Father, save the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Understanding that the Holy Spirit speaks through Saint Theodore just as all the Fathers we are being tought by God that in order for God to become cirucmscribed [Jesus Christ] he had to come from something circumscribed [His mother Mary]. He does not make himself circumscribable without using a pre-existing circumscribed being. Thus, in order for God the Father to became circumscribed He must, in His circumscirbed form, take His materiality from something circumscribed.

If this were true, then, we have something here which has neveer been taught before, but suggests a material creature was formed so that God the Father might become incorporeal.

But let us suppose that what Abraham and Sara saw at Mamre was a vision or apparition of the “Holy Trinity,” that woud mean that the visitation of the three angels was not a historical event, in which case we still could not paint an “icon” of this incident, because it is not a reality but a vision or apparition. That is not the teaching of the Church.

Saint Theodore also makes these statements:

“if He is not a prototype of His own icon, neither was He enfleshed, remaining beyond depictability because of the infinity of the deity.”

“..holy Scripture prohibits a likeness or any kind of representation used as an idol: because it is speaking about the divine nature [for the Godhead is measureless and formless, and has no relationship at all to any likeness] and not about the Word which has received an essence in our form.”

Thus, since Christ had a circumscribable [shape and form] countenance with certain properties, he is now circumscribable for depiction, but even Christ is uncircumscribable in His essence, His divinity.

“The Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council repeat the authoritative argument of Pope Gregory II, contained in his letter to the Emperor Leo III the Esaurian:” ‘Why do we neither describe nor represent the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Because we do not know what He is…And if we had seen and known Him as we have seen and known His Son, we would have tried to describe Him and to represent Him in art’ [Leonid Ouspensky; Theology of the Icon]


“Among the other errors, we often find the image of God the Father. This image has been particularly widespread in the Orthodox Church since the seventeenth analyze respect to the prohibition of God the Father on the part of the Great Council of Moscow in 1666-1667…As we see, the Seventh Ecumenical Council speaks of the absence of God the Father, who is not incarnate and consequently is invisible and non-representable.”

Pope Gregory II (669-731)makes an essential point to Emperor Leo that we paint only persons we have seen. Because men have not seen the Father of Jesus Christ in any form, we do not make images of Him:

“Why do we not delineate and paint the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ? Because we have not known Him, and it is not possible to delineate and paint the nature of God. For if we had seen Him and known Him as we have His Son and had delineated and painted Him, you would have called His likeness and idol also.”

This is from his First Epistle on the Holy Icons, testifying that icons of God the Father were neither in existence in the eighth century nor regarded as theologically defensible.

It is forbidden to depict God the Father because unlike the Logos, God the Father took no form or shape, and although Christ said, “He who has seen me hath seen the Father” [Jn. 14:9], this refers to the Glory and power of God the Father which God the incarnate Word shares with Him. In other words, one “knows” the Father “knows” His Will in Jesus Christ. Also when Christ said “He who has seen me hath seen the Father” He imparts to the Apostles the knowledge of His divine Nature. God the Son and Father are of one essence. God the Father existing within Him because Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are inseparable in their Divinity.

When the Son tells us “He who has seen me hath seen the Father” He asserts that we have no access to God the Fathers except through Him. He also defines their relationship, saying, “No man hath seen God at any time; the Only-Begotten Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath Declared Him.”

Saint Irenaeus says: “The Father, therefore, has revealed Himself to all by making His Word visible to all. And conversely, the Word has declared the Father and the Son to all, since He has become visible to all”.

Saint Justin Martyr explains that not God the Father but the Son of God alone appears personally to men:

“He is sent by Another Who remains in the supercelestial places, invisible to all men, holding personal intercourse with none, Whom we believe to be Maker and Father of all.”

If Moses and the rest of the Prophets and Patriarchs, or any others to whom God spoke had seen the Father then how could the Savior have said to the Jews in regards to the Father: “You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form.” [Jn. 5:37] Is there is a contradiction between the word of Saint Justin and the statement of Christ? Does God, Who speaks through His Saints and through Jesus the man, contradict Himself, and spreads confusion?

Saint Theodore the Studite writes to the iconoclastic adversaries:

“Men and angels are images of God. We are obligated to make icons of both and to offer veneration to them…But by discarding images of everything that has a depictable nature, you have also discarded [images of] every heavenly and earthly thing except the Trinity, for it alone is not made into an icon because it is not a creature but uncreated.”

Saint John of Damascus writes the following:

“Jacob saw to him as a man. Moses saw, as it were, the back of a man; Isaiah saw Him as a man sitting upon a throne. In a vision,Daniel saw the likeness of a man, and one like a son of man coming before “the Ancient of Days.” No one saw the divine nature, but the image and figure of what was yet to come. For the invisible Son and Word of God was to become truly man, that He might be united to our nature, and be seen on earth. All who saw this image or figure of what was yet to come worshipped it, as Paul the apostle says in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar.”

What Jacob, Moses, and Daniel saw was not God the Father, Son or Holy Spirit in divinity nor the Father or Spirit in form, “…but the image of what was yet to come [Christ].”

Concerning Rublev’s “Trinity icon”: Some believe that he depicts the Holy Trinity, in the form of three angels, appearing to Abraham and Sarah; thus, the title, “the Hospitality of Abraham”. The traditional view is that one of these three angels is God the Son, in the form of an angel. He prefigures or typifies His Incarnation. The other two angels cannot be types of God the Father and the Holy Spirit, because they typify nothing and nowhere does the Church teach that the Father and Spirit ever took on materiality. We have never seen the Father, and the Holy Spirit has appeared only in the form of a dove or fire. Since they are immaterial, there is nothing to typify. Why is it that none of the Fathers knowing of the visitation of the three angels to Abraham never referred to them as a Theophony of the Holy Trinity? Not Saint Theodore, Saint John of Damascus or Saint John Chrysostom, etc. None of them.

We may compare Moses as a type of Christ for example because there are many things which qualifies him as a type; he was the law giver, as well as the head of the people of Israel. Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness as Christ was lifted up on the Cross. When Moses lifted his arms at the Red Sea as the sign of the Cross the Jews defeated their enemies just as Christ spread his hands on the cross and defeated the devil. Another typology is the Burning bush which is the symbol of the Theotokos and the incarnation.

Some believe that we should not paint the Transfiguration of our Lord because the light amongst his Divine Energies that surrounds Christ can not be depicted if they are not seen, which is true, but since God in His wisdom permitted it to be seen at the Transfiguration we can now depict it. Normally we can not see the Divine light because it is Divine Energy but God gave us a glimpse of the future where it will be visible to us always. We shall bask in the Light because we shall be deified.

As well, the parting of the Red Sea where the soldiers of Pharaoh drowned typifies Holy baptism, Pharaoh himself typifies the Devil, the burning bush typifies the Theotokos, the lambs blood over the sills of the doors during the time of the visitation of the Angel of death typifies the blood of Christ and how the blood of the Eucharist protects us from death, and Christ on the Cross typifies the Eucharist on the altar. Everything that is a type is a symbol of a physical reality yet to come.

With the Angels in the icon of “the Hospitality of Abraham”, they can do no more than indicate the existence of the Holy Trinity. Their visitation has no typological significance, except for Christ.

The three angels signify Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Other than this, the angelic figures on this icon say nothing more about the Trinity. The three angels do not imply the actual presence of the three Persons in space and time. They are not the Three-in-one God in visible form. If they were icons, we would need prototypes. The invisible cannot be a prototype. Besides, icons involve prophecy, they point to a future historical event or person, such as the center angel in the “Hospitality,” prefigures the Incarnation. This cannot be said of the Father and the Spirit.

Saint John of Damascus says “in no manner did the Father and the Holy Spirit participate in the incarnation of God the Word but by benevolence and will.”

Also to understand the theological meaning of a prototype we must be aware that a prototype is not an already existing icon that an iconographer uses to guide him in painting to be used as a reference. Theologically speaking a prototype refers to an actual person or event possessing materiality; but God the Father and Holy Spirit possess no materiality, no visible history, they can not be represented as images. Without this singularly important attribute an icon can not be painted.

The only type in this icon is that of God the Son as incarnate Lord being represented by the center angel of what was yet to come that is Christ Jesus signifies with the other two angels a number. Three angels signify the existence of the Three Persons of the Trinity. We have only heard the voice of the Father at the Theophony of Jesus Christ and we have seen the Holy Spirit as wind, fire and as a dove. That is all.

Let us suppose “the Trinity icon” (e.g., Rublev’s) is, in fact, a representation of the Trinity, why is God the Son singled out while the Father and Spirit have no mark of distinction? God the Son, nor Christ the man is not greater than the other two persons of the Trinity. If, indeed, the Three Persons appeared in the form of angels, they came as equals. Abraham bows before only one of the angels. Is this not an offense to the other Persons? Must we think the Son to be superior to the Others? Why are they not identified and worshipped by Abraham as Father and the Holy Spirit? Which of the the holy Fathers describe to us about this incident? Do they say that the three angels are a Theophany of the Trinity? That the Father and Spirit became incarnate, not as a man but as angels?

There is something else in this icon. With the figures of Abraham and Sarah in the icon, his prostration to one of the angels, the special attention to the one — depicted in the icon as the angel with a crucifix halo — links Abraham to the Logos Who will become the incarnate Christ.

In actuality the icon represents a singular event. Abraham is the “father of many nations”. The angels appear to him (and Sarah). The center angel speaks to him of Sodom and Gomorrah (the “world”). He is the type of Christ Who shall come into the sinful world. He relates Himself to Abraham, that is, as “the father of many nations.” In this way, He connects Himself to Old Israel, and eventually to the Church. God the Son as the Angel is the God of the Old Testament Who became incarnate as the Head and Spouse of the Church, His Bride and Body. When we link Abraham and Christ we also associate the Lord with the Jews and Him Who they will produce, the Messiah. This typology is erased when we eliminate Abraham and Sarah from the icon.

Not only the angel Christ but Abraham himself points to the future. Sarah herself is a type of the Theotokos giving birth to a child miraculously. She is informed by and an angel, even as Mary is informed by an angel. Sara will bear a son, Issac, himself a type of Christ.

There is nothing concerning the other two angels that suggest that they are Father and Spirit, while the relationship between the center angel with Abraham and Sarah has great significance for history and theology of the Church. Moreover, the so-called “Trinity icon” (minus Abraham and Sarah) empties both this episode and its theology of its intended meaning. Thusly changing the theology of the Church.

A false or distorted icon says something else. Saint Theodore writes “Every likeness painted is a by-product of the prototype’s form…The by-product is inseparable from the prototype.”

Without an image there is no form and without form there is no image. And so the Seventh Ecumenical Council declares the difference between sacred icons and idols:

“We, however, make images of people who have existed: the holy servants of God who had bodies… We do nothing incongruous in depicting them as they have been. We do not invent anything as you do, [referring to the pagans], nor do we display portraits of incorporeal [deities]…We do not adore the icons, but rather we glorify the persons depicted and, at that, not as gods but as true servants and friends of God….Moreover, we make icons of God, I mean our Lord Jesus Christ, as He was seen on earth…Because the Father’s Only-Begotten Son, God the Word, was incarnate of the spotless Virgin and Theotokos Mary, we paint Him according to His humanity and not His bodiless divinity.”

Also the Seventh Ecumenical Council tells us: “Iconography is not an invention of artists but an approved institution of the Catholic Church…It is the conception and tradition of the fathers and not of an artist. Only the skill belongs to the artist, but the regulation belongs to the venerable fathers.”

In other words, an iconographer can not paint anything according to his/her imagination.

Iconography is liturgical, and communal taken from the theology of the Church. If you change the theology of the icon you change the theology of the Church.

If it is not “believed in the church everywhere, always by everyone” [Saint Vincent of Lerins] then it is not to be accepted by the Church.

The liturgical texts as well identify the Theophony as a visitation not of the three persons of the Holy Trinity but only the Son of God to Abraham and Sarah. Unfortunately, Rublev’s naming it the Old Testament Holy Trinity (and excluding Abraham and Sarah, as we have seen) must alter the content as well as the composition of the story. The absence of the host and hostess changes it from a historical event to a mythical theophany, and a Theophany, to a portraiture wholly without scriptural context.

Abraham and Sarah must be represented to show that this the hospitality was a historical event and the theology must be present to show the connection between God and Christ, and Christ and the Church. Also, if we say that the other two angels are God the Father and Holy Spirit, however pious that may seem, we imply that they took on angelic or human materiality, an idea found neither in the Scriptures or the Fathers.

If not a revelation of the Trinity, what was the purpose of the angelic visitation to Abraham and Sarah? We have already seen one reason. Another reason was to tell Sarah that she would bare a child (a type of Christ’s Nativity) and to warn Abraham about his nephew, Lot and his family, living within Sodom. Another historical fact which justifies the painting of the “Hospitality.”

Now, if we depict God the Father as “the Ancient of Days” or as an old man with white hair, or as one of the three angels in the “icon” of the Trinity, we defy the decrees and dogmatic statements about this matter that have come down to us through the centuries, from the Fathers and Synods of the Church and, consequently, throws into doubt everything else they have said concerning the faith, because if they are mistaken concerning this matter then they can be mistaken about other matters regarding true doctrine.

Do not be misled by the fact because the so-called “Trinity icon” has never been condemned as a heresy, it is an appropriate subject for an icon. There are many things that are not a heresy but still wrong and sinful acts. And some things are heretical even though not formally condemned. Thus, to use God’s name in vain is not a heresy, neither is taking out the Doxology from the Liturgy, neither is throwing an icon against a wall, but these are sins and we would not commit sin simply because they are not condemned as heresy. Furthermore, the 5th Ecumenical Council condemned the idea of universal salvation [Origenism] but suppose they did not condemn it could we still believe it? Merely because something has not been officially forbidden, should we do or believe it?

It is of historical interest that there were no “Trinity icons” in early centuries of the Church. But even if there were, the principle that what cannot be seen cannot be depicted applies —especially of things spiritual and divine. It would be wrong to paint the invisible then as it is now. It is not only presumptuous, but such impudence welcomes confusion and confrontation, even idolatry.

Disregarding the limits on such things erected by the Church, leaves artists and historians vulnerable to worldly ideas and philosophies, and leads to contempt of the holy Fathers.

Portraying God the Father or the Trinity incarnate is a violation of the theological principal erected by the Fathers. Why then in the early Church do we not hear that such “icons” were not anathematized? Clearly because they did not exist. It was simply assumed by every one that one could not portray the Father and the Holy Spirit, nor the holy Trinity. Later, when under alien influence, iconographers began to paint what the conscience of the Church forbade, the Church took a stand against such “icons.”

Thus, it is clear that in the 8th and 9th centuries that it was quite unimaginable to depict the Trinity when the Council of Nicea [787] summarized the Church’s faith concerning icons. Some people argue that they were painted as early as the 4th century. It seems most unlikely, since, if the words of the Fathers have any meaning, that Christian iconographers would have defiantly depicted what was expressly forbidden by the Church.

To summarize this work we have an excerpt from the Seventh Ecumenical Council in regards to what may be depicted in icons. Read in the context of what the Fathers have said, the meaning of the following paragraph is clear: the Father, the Holy Spirit or Trinity may not be painted:

“We therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church, define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving cross, so also the venerable and holy images should be set forth…the figure of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, of our Lady, the Mother of God, of the honorable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people.” Nowhere does it mention God the Father or Holy Spirit.


“For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them and to these should be given due salutation and honorable reverence….” [The Decree of The Holy, Great, Ecumenical Synod, The Second of Nice. Pg. 550]

Centuries later, the Trinity portraitures infiltrated the Church everywhere, especially in Russia. This kind of religious art was condemned by two Councils: the Great Council of Moscow in 1666 an the Council of Constantinople [1780]. To quote from the decree of the Russian Synod:

“We synodically declare that the so-called icon of the Holy Trinity, a recent [my emphasis] invention, is alien and unacceptable to the Apostolic and Catholic Orthodox Church. It was transmitted to the Orthodox Church from the Latins.”

According to the Council of 1666 and the council of Constantinople of 1780 the “icon” of the Trinity is referred to as “improper”, “ignorant”, “unbefitting” “unacceptable”, and “base”. It would seem contradictory to reverence such an icon so described. What sense does it make? Even if the “icon” has not been officially declared a heresy it seems by these words to be nothing else. If these words do not mean heresy then what do they mean?