Sr. Nancy Lee explains that she often incorporates smaller icons or other images into an icon that reflect something that influenced the person’s spirituality in a powerful way, particularly when it is an icon of a founder or foundress of a religious congregation.
The icon-within-the-icon of Jeanne Chézard de Matel, The Vessel of God, is Andrej Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity, originally called The Hospitality of Abraham, painted in the early fifteenth century (c. 1425) to honor the great Russian Saint, Sergius. The scriptural source of the icon is the Genesis story of the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah, visited by three mysterious messengers, whom they address as One Person. Mystic tradition has held this image to be a foreshadowing of the Christian revelation of the Trinity. St. Bonaventure names the Three, Fountain Fullness, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.
There are several traditions surrounding the icon and the naming of the three angels around the table. The most common interpretation places the First Person of the Trinity on the left (as the viewer faces the icon), the Incarnate Word in the center, and the Spirit on the right. The open space at the front of the table, to which the Spirit is pointing, is our place, where we are each invited and taken into the intimacy of the Divine Communion. This table of love “has no boundaries and embraces everyone who wants to dwell there,” says Henri Nouwen. But this invitation is also “the narrow way,” symbolized by the small square opening in the middle of this empty place. I am told that Rublev’s original icon is life-size, and so when one approaches it and stands directly in front of it, there is the actual feeling of stepping into a three- dimensional space and completing the circle that is formed by the Three.
Henri Nouwen tells us in his book, Behold the Beauty of the Lord, about praying with icons, that:
“Andrej Rublev painted this icon not only to share the fruits of his own meditation on the mystery of the Holy Trinity but also to offer his fellow monks a way to keep their hearts centered in God while living in the midst of political unrest. The more we look at this holy image with the eyes of faith, the more we come to realize that it is painted…as a holy place to enter and stay within. As we place ourselves in front of the icon in prayer, we come to experience a gentle invitation to participate in the intimate conversation that is taking place among the three divine angels and to join them around the table.”
Stepping back from the icon and looking at it from a distance, we can see that within a basic composition of a circle the bodies of the three figures also form a cup, and their heads form the rim of the cup. Above the head of the first person on the left is a sketch of a mansion, the dwelling place that is prepared for us; above the center person is the tree of life; and above the third person there is a hint of flowing water, the water of life. Between the three figures there is a dynamic relationship that speaks of oneness, harmony, deep intimacy, and communion.
Jeanne Chézard de Matel’s Writings are filled with her experience of the Trinity that was central to her life and her spirituality. Her gaze is fixed on this mystery, which she enters into in a particular way through the mystery of the Person of the Word of God Incarnate. Jeanne takes her place at the Banquet of Love. And here “…she received great light and such an exalted understanding of the Holy Trinity Who had come to dwell in her soul with the Holy Sacrament that her heart seemed to burst three times with joy at seeing herself the dwelling place of God, Three in One.”