Absence in Rublev’s Trinity

I was struck in reading Bunge’s history and interpretation of Rublev’s Trinity by the double absence of Sarah and Abraham. Double, in that Bunge offers a genealogy of their disappearance, but also in that their disappearance disappears within this genealogy itself. Three passages describe and perform the disappearance of the two, and in them Bunge slowly transitions from the history of disappearance to its effect:

“Gen 18 will, from the ninth century onwards, be ordinarily understood as a manifestation of the Holy Trinity […] and Abraham and Sarah are now fundamentally bystanders, who can be dropped if need be” (55).

“This scene is very early on set free from this context in the history of salvation in order to be placed in a straight-forwardly christological-typological context […] Abraham and Sarah, originally hosts to the main figures of the event, are changed into suppliants of the mystery of the Trinity […] From the fourteenth century onwards, Abraham and Sarah may even completely vanish” (90).

“Of the biblical ‘hospitality of Abraham’ only the head of the calf in the chalice is recalled. The hosts themselves, Abraham and Sarah, are missing. Their place is taken by us, the faithful, among whom the Holy Trinity set up their tent. The biblical event, recounted with such a delight for detail in Gen 18, is compressed to the furthest limit. No historical narrative tale. The divine light of fulfilment has completely swallowed up the Old Testament type, the preliminary sketch and likeness. Transparence of the earthly, the creaturely, to the divine reality. Primordial event as an image of timeless presence” (110).

It is uncertain in what sense—or even whether—we ought to be struck by the absence of Sarah and Abraham, whether we ought to notice it, or what noticing it might entail. It is uncertain, that is, to what extent Bunge takes the absence of Sarah and Abraham to be significant to the theology of the icon. I take it for granted that the icon could still be imagined as interpretively or theologically tethered to that which it does not depict (in that it depicts the Trinity this is precisely true, but more on that below), but I also take it for granted that it need not be tethered to what (to who) is absent from it. (As far as this goes, it is not immaterial that the pictorial untethering is echoed in the liturgical untethering that Bunge describes, in the freezing of a moment within the biblical story and the relocation of that image to the story of Pentecost.) The verbs that Louth uses to translate Bunge’s descriptions in these passages offer something of an answer to these questions: the two “can be dropped,” the icon is “set free” from their story, they “may even completely vanish,” they “are missing,” their place “taken,” their story “compressed” and “completely swallowed up.” The movement of the verbs suggests a transition from the non-necessity of Sarah and Abraham to the necessity of their disappearance; it is relayed in the succession of the verbs themselves, the iconic image first liberated and distinguished from its traditional setting, then defined against this setting (defined as the consumption of this setting). There is a sense in Bunge’s narration that Sarah and Abraham had to vanish for Rublev to write his Trinity, that in order for the Trinity to be depicted, space could not be made or added but only rededicated, these other subjects effaced. It is not better to take the other track presented in the last passage of imagining their disappearance as a necessity—not better, that is, to say that Abraham and Sarah had to disappear in order for their place to be taken, as Bunge unhappily puts it, by the Christian who prays with the icon. The effect of these descriptions of their disappearance (what I mean by the disappearance of their disappearance) is that Abraham and Sarah, like their depictions, are absences effected by and within different competitive economies. They vanish within and are vanished by competitive imaginations of the divine and the mundane, of the Jewish and the Christian, the biblical and the theological.

Yet if I want to claim that, I also want to suggest that these movements seem unnecessary, that more might be imagined from the disappearance of their disappearance, and that Still’s reading of Derrida’s hospitality might aid in evoking the revelatory potential of Sarah and Abraham’s hiddenness in the icon. Their slipping away from the icon’s field of vision can be read as significant to the depiction of the Trinity and suggestive of what the icon does depict (or, in iconic fashion, what it does not depict). Thus it strikes me that the disappearance of Sarah and Abraham images the horizons of Derrida’s “Law of hospitality,” as Still distinguishes it, or especially as she later expands, drawing from Adieu, the “Law of absolute welcoming, in which the other is received beyond the capacity of the self” (8). The effacement of the hosts, their complete displacement remains within a hermeneutic of hospitality, and if there is something potentially violent and competitive in the genealogy of their disappearance, there remains something revelatory of radical or absolute hospitality in still seeing the icon as an image of Abraham’s hospitality. The hosts have so opened their world as not only to cease to be the subjects of hospitality but also to disappear from the act of hospitality itself. (This, alternatively, might depict how the Law is a vanishing point, that its fulfillment negates the twoness hospitality requires.) This vanishing is, of course, theologically significant as well. The guests of the icon have become the hosts—with Christ in the center, hand held over the chalice, the doubling of meaning here cannot be escaped, that the guest is the host, the Host. Abraham and Sarah can only be hosts, the icon suggests, analogically.

But if Sarah and Abraham’s absence images an absolute hospitality that is in turn depicted by the presence of an image of the divine economy, appealing to Still pushes further, in her elaboration of Derrida’s recognition that the Law must be and can only be realized in relative and particular ways. The Law is realized historically, humanly. That this is also true of Trinitarian theology is manifest, more powerfully than it often is in words, in the iconic depiction of the Trinity, in its ranging on the idolatrous, its risking of the forbidden, its crossing of boundaries, in the fact that the meaningfulness of its depiction depends entirely on the recognition that it does not depict its subject. In this, Rublev’s Trinity contains another effacement that is also a manifestation: it presents God as God is known in divine hospitality: in human form. Divine transcendence is effaced, hidden away, folded within the three human shapes. Here, to return to Bunge, our perspective alongside (not rather than) Abraham and Sarah’s proves theologically opening: that God is the absolute and eternal host arrives enfolded in God’s coming as the stranger and the guest. If the icon relates a divine economy, the absence of the human hosts also marks the manner of the divine economy and the demand it makes: that this God must be hosted, cared for, welcomed.

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