1. ABRAHAM'S HOSPITALITY
Apart from the express witness of the Holy Bible on the dogma of the Holy Trinity, we also have innuendoes in the Old Testament. One such innuendo is the appearance of God to Abraham, in the form of three messengers.
As we are told by the Book of Genesis (18,1), while Abraham was seated near the oak trees of Mambre where he had pitched his tent, he was visited by three men, totally unknown to him. The Patriarch welcomed them openheartedly and lovingly, albeit they were total strangers. He then prepared a sumptuous meal for them. During their conversation, the strange visitors announced to Abraham that his wife Sarah would give birth to a child within that year, which was indeed fulfilled.
In this biblical event, the Fathers of the Church saw a pre-defining of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, which was fully revealed in the New Testament. This is why the event of Abraham's Hospitality was portrayed from a very early stage. As the biblical event unfolds, the two of the three men later appear as angels: " Two angels came to Sodom at dusk " (Genesis 19,1), which is the reason the three figures seated at Abraham's table are depicted in their angelic form. Besides, this is another ideal way to denote that the three men are heavenly visitors.
One such icon existed and was honored in ancient times, at the site of Abraham's hospitality. This is witnessed by Eusebios of Caesaria ( dec.339 ): " The visitors who were hosted by Abraham are leaning on a table; the two of them are on each side of it, while the one seated in the middle surpasses them in authority; may he be the Lord that was foretold us; our Saviour, to whom even the ignorant show respect, by hearkening to the divine words " (Evangelic proof 5,19 LGF 27, 208)
The superiority of the central angel was predominant in many icons of the Hospitality. This is attributed to the interpretation given by several Fathers of the Church (John the Chrysostom, John the Damascene), as well as other ecclesiastic authors ( Justin, Tertullian, Theodoretus Kyrou) on this other Epiphany. They saw in the Hospitality of Abraham the person of Jesus Christ, accompanied by two angels. For instance, the blessed Chrysostom said: " From the very beginning, God had disclosed the Son. When God said 'Let us make a person in our image and our semblance', He was speaking to the Son; therefore it was He that Abraham was conversing with, in the tent ." (EPE 13,228, also EPE 3,688)
Others, however, (Cyril of Alexandria, Ambrose of Milan) interpreted the visit of the three men as a pre-depiction of the Holy Trinity.
The memorable academic A. Orlandos, in his commentary on a relative mural in the chapel of the Virgin at the Holy Monastery of Saint John the Theologian in Patmos island, notes that: " It is worth noting that the central angel is not only larger in size than the other two angels, but that he alone is holding a scroll in his hand. This however comprises a characteristic iconography element for the depiction of Christ since the first Christian years, hence it was believed - especially since he has a cross inscribed on the halo that is around His head - that this angel symbolized Christ, or, according to others, that it symbolized God the Father ."
In the second case, where the angels are portrayed with the same dimensions around the table, without any one of them standing out in particular due to their size or any other characteristics, the icon is striving to show the equal status of all three personae of the Holy Trinity.
The Patristic interpretation of Abraham's Hospitality - with the symbolism of the Holy Trinity - passed through to the hymns of our Church. Thus, in a verse that is sung on the Sunday of the Paralytic, this symbolism is beautifully outlined: " Albeit a wanderer, Abraham was given the honor of symbolically hosting the one Lord, in His three hypostases; as hypersubstantial, in the guise of males ." Canon of Midnight Prayer, ode 6)
The icon of the Holy Trinity in the Orthodox Church has two forms: One form is the portrayal of the three angels, with the inscription THE HOLY TRINITY or THE HOSPITALITY OF ABRAHAM.
The second type is the portrayal of the three Personae of the Holy Trinity: the Father, depicted as an old man, the Son who is seated at the Father's right, and the Holy spirit "in the semblance of a dove". " This type of portrayal of the Holy Trinity " - as the memorable G. Sotiriou observes - " relates to the latter-day Byzantine years, under a western influence ".
In Byzantine hagiography, the Father is never depicted; instead, He is represented by Christ, for two reasons: Firstly, because the Father was never incarnated, as was Christ with His incarnation, hence no-one has actually seen God the Father. " Why do we not describe nor portray the father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Because we do not know who He is, and it is impossible to describe and portray the nature of God; if we had seen Him and recognized Him -as we did His Son- we would have described and depicted Him also ." (Minutes of the 7 th Ecumenical Synod) Secondly, he is not depicted, because each persona of the Holy Trinity is the same, one God. An exception to this, is the portrayal of God the Father in the form of an old man (the " Elder of All Time "). This expression was borrowed from the prophetic book of Daniel, and it signifies the eternity of God. " They looked on, until the thrones were in place and the Elder of All Time was seated there, and his garb was white like the snow, and the hair of his head was like pure wool; his throne was a flaming fire " (Daniel 7,9)
Description of the icon. The icon that is found in the Byzantine Museum of Athens, dating back to the 16 th century, is inscribed: THE MANIFESTATION OF THE LIFE-BRINGING TRINITY IN THE TENT OF ABRAHAM. Three angels are seated around a rectangular table with a barred, narrow opening at the front. They are holding their scepters; the graceful beauty of their countenance, the serenity of their posture and the silence of the moment that is inspired by their presence, unify earth and the heavens. The halos that encircle their heads brighten and illuminate the scene. " One of the special characteristics of this portrayal is the form of the central angel, whose presence is purposely highlighted, as he is more discernible than the others, through certain specific and significant details. He is holding a crucifix-tipped scepter in his left hand; this cross does not appear on the angel to the left. He wears a purple mantle that is draped tightly, up to his neck, as opposed to the others' mantles, which have been given a dark - almost black - shade of green. His head leans slightly to the left, without deviating from the central axis of the portrayal on which his entire body is aligned. With his right hand resting on the table, he is giving his blessing. The angel on the right is depicted with the same gesture, but without the blessing ." (Icons of Cretan art, p. 560)
Behind the angels, the two hosts are serving their visitors. On the left - as we look at the icon - Abraham is depicted with a lush beard, long hair and broad face. He is holding a semi-spherical vessel with food, even though the table has plenty already. The bent of his body indicates his hospitable nature, his willingness to minister to his official visitors and to please them.
Opposite Abraham, to the right of the icon, Sarah is depicted. She too is holding a vessel for the table. Her expression is pensive. The news that she would bear a child despite her advanced years, brings solemn thoughts to her mind. She is probably repeating, while in profound silence and pensiveness, the words that she heard from her guests: " Is there anything that God says that is not possible?" (Genesis 18, 14)
This picture closes with the two buildings and the two trees in the background.
The scene appears gayer, thanks to the beautiful color combinations of the garments and the people, while the successful depiction of the pleated garments gives the icon an idealism and it dematerializes it.
The entire scene has a ritualistic majesty, a classical balance and nobility. When the Hospitality of Abraham is spread out on a mural, it is normally situated inside the Inner Sanctum of the temple, above the Platytera or the conch of the deacons. This is because - as we said - the presentation is symbolic of the Holy Trinity, which we so frequently beseech during the Divine Service.