Andrei Rublyov was the greatest iconographer of the Middle Ages. Little concrete is known about him or his life, except that in 1405 he helped to write the icons of the Muscovite Cathedral of the Annunciation under the tutelage of Theophanes the Greek, and that he wrote the famous Icon of the Holy Trinity somewhere around 1410. Most likely he was a monk. His icons are considered the ideal of Byzantine iconography. He was canonized by the Orthodox Church in 1988.
The first Sunday of the Great Fast is referred to as the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, which celebrates the victory of the Church Catholic over the heresy of Iconoclasm at the Second Council of Nicea in AD 787. Iconoclasm (Greek for icon-breaking) as a unified movement began traditionally under Emperor Leo III who ordered the destruction of an image of Christ in a Byzantine Church. For several decades the controversy raged on and on. The Iconoclasts claimed that the Christian faithful should venerate Christ and his saints themselves and not their icons, and furthermore that any attempt to depict God in an image constituted idolatry. The Orthodox answer was that by God becoming man and taking flesh, he thereby made possible his depiction as a man in sacred artwork. The Orthodox prevailed at the Seventh Ecumenical Council and until the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century Iconoclasm as a Christian movement was a thing of the past.
And so we come to Andrei Tarkovsky’s haunting and majestic Andrei Rublyov or The Passion According to Andrei. Largely fictional, it is politically charged and strangely mystical account of the iconographer’s life, set against the backdrop of the Tartar invasion of Russia (often seen as a metaphor for the Soviet revolution). At a whopping three hours and twenty-five minutes, Andrei is no Saturday afternoon popcorn flick. I always hate to describe a film as “deep”. It gives the impression that a movie is worthless unless it has something “important” to say. Frequently films with this attitude entertain a self-seriousness that results in sanctimony and preaching. But Tarkovsky does not preach. He only shows.
It is hard to believe, as intensely spiritual Andrei is, how cold and detached Tarkovsky’s camera remains throughout. He maintains a restraint of photography reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick. Even at times when one might think a little passion from the camera might be desirable, Tarkovsky remains aloof and unaffected, letting the images and the actors speak for themselves. As such it is a hard movie to sit through, and unless one pays the utmost attention, the chronology of the film is easy to lose.
What first struck me about Andrei was just how dirty it is. Tarkovsky seems to revel in mud, rain, and sweat. When the eponymous hero stumbles accidentally upon a clan of nude Satanists, the exposed flesh is weathered and unglamorous, anything but erotic. The film begins with Andrei and his companions taking shelter from the rain in a barn full of smelly and unwashed peasants. This is a quality that made Mel Gibson’s film so good: the willingness to get down into the filth and meanness of human existence. And yet, like Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, The Passion According to Andrei has an unearthly quality. Tarkovsky is the only director I can think of whom I would call a mystic. There are plenty of mystical films, mind you, but Tarkovsky’s lens seems to revel in the light of the Transfiguration, seems to see beyond the black and white celluloid to the uncreated light of Mt. Tabor. When I think of, as one is wont to do, what the monks of Mt. Athos must experience, Tarkovsky’s Andrei is what I imagine.
In many ways, Andrei Rublyov is a cinematic icon. Behind iconography is a rich mystical theology grounded in the mystery of the incarnation. By becoming man, Christ sanctified not just humans but all of nature, lifting it up into divinity. The icons, made from the clay and mud of the Earth and the wood of trees, are by their very substances a proclamation of the glory of God. They represent all of creation in its redeemed and transfigured state. Andrei is well known for its use of natural imagery. Snakes creep through murky waters, horses prance in a field, snow falls delicately on the ground. The camera is almost more interested in this than in its human subjects. Andrei and his companions seem to radiate light as the saints in the icons (thanks not in small part to Tarkovsky’s brilliant use of high-contrast black and white photography). In one of my favorite shots, spilled paint mixes with the flowing water of a woodland stream. Symbolic possibilities abound. Does is represent the mixing of the divine and human? The hypostatic union? The passions of humanity tainting nature? All of these at the same time, probably.
The Soviets, who hated anything that was good, true, and beautiful, tried to kill the movie, but thanks to the Cannes film festival and Tarkovsky’s established prestige, they were unsuccessful. It is not hard to see why they hated it. The invasion of the Tartars which occurs in the middle of the film is easily associated with the Soviet revolution. It portrays Russia in a time when Kings and princes ruled, not democratically elected dictators. Most of all, though, the Soviets hated it because it presented Christianity as innate to Russian society, and this the Soviets could not abide. In one of its most famous scenes, Andrei hallucinates a snowy reenactment of the crucifixion with him in the role of Christ. As he hangs from the cross on that snow-covered hill, he is the archetype of all of Russia, crucified by its so-called liberators.
Andrei Rublyov is a perfect film for this time of year: steeped in asceticism and in mystery, great for meditation, coinciding with the commemoration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. For the Christian, every day must be the triumph of Orthodoxy, in which we allow Christ to conquer anew within us what he conquered once and for all on the Cross. 1300 years and fourteen ecumenical councils later, the mysteries of the Holy Icons are still with us. They are there for every generation to rediscover, and The Passion According to Andrei is a perfect way to do this.