The transfiguration is one of those Bible scenes that has been painted so many times we have an embarrassment of riches from which to choose. The event traditionally takes place on Mt. Tabor, a 575 m. high mountain located at a strategic junction in Galilee that is first mentioned in the book of Joshua. The summit has been occupied successively by a fifth c. Byzantine church, a twelfth c. Crusader church, and currently by a Franciscan church built in the early twentieth c. next to a monastery and a modest Orthodox church.
Jesus took Peter, James, and John
and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them,
and his clothes became dazzling white,
such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.
Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses,
and they were conversing with Jesus.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
“Rabbi, it is good that we are here!
Let us make three tents:
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.
Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them;
from the cloud came a voice,
“This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone
but Jesus alone with them.
As they were coming down from the mountain,
he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone,
except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
So they kept the matter to themselves,
questioning what rising from the dead meant.
[Click on images for larger view]
Certainly one of the earliest images of the Transfiguration dates to about 565 AD in St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai, the mountain where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush and later gave him the Ten Commandments. Mountaintops, of course, are always liminal places where the boundary between ‘above’ and ‘below’, between the earthly and divine realms, is thinner. The monastery on Mt. Sinai is named for St. Catherine, whose image we have seen before, and who died a martyr’s death in Alexandria by the wheel and beheading. The monastery contains one of the world’s most important collections of early biblical manuscripts as well as icons, including the the oldest icon of Christ Pantocrator. The church apse is decorated with this mosaic image of the Transfiguration consisting of tens of thousands of tesserae, small pieces of stone, glass, and gold. It is in the Byzantine style with the gold background meant to signify the divine, and it is surrounded by a chain of medallions with portraits of apostles, prophets, and monks. We see Christ in an oval mandorla, clothed in white, crowned with a halo and holding his right hand in a blessing gesture as he stares out at us. Shafts of light radiate from him to the other figures, reminding us that Christ is the light of the world. He is flanked by Moses and Elijah, while John, Peter, and James have fallen to the ground in dazed confusion.
Fra Angelico, a monk at the Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence, was encouraged by Cosimo di Medici to decorate the new buildings and among them are frescoes decorating the monks’ cells as aids to contemplation. Here we don’t see expensive gold leaf or brilliant and costly blue and red pigments. Instead, the palette is subdued and the picture has a serenity befitting its purpose. Fra Angelico was a transitional artist between the Medieval period and the Renaissance, and we can see the increased naturalism of the figures but also a lack of any detailed setting, though he does include a large rock that signifies the mountain. Christ is still seen in a mandorla, like the earlier work, and dressed in glowing white, but his arms are outstretched to foreshadow the cross. Beneath the busts of Moses and Elijah, the Virgin Mary and St. Dominic stand in quiet prayer, while the Apostles crouch below. This simple work shows the painter’s love of God and the humble devotional life of a monk.
This is the second painting of this subject by Giovanni Bellini. We have fully entered the Renaissance now, as we can see by the modelling of the figures and the drapery, the use of color, and especially by the depiction of place and perspective. The stillness of the characters and the interest in the natural environment, with the homely touch of the man driving his cow, all show Northern European influence. Christ has a halo but no mandorla, and though he is elevated above the waking disciples, he is shown fully within their space. The scene is less supernatural, more accessible and earthy. I especially like the fence in the foreground that intrudes into our space drawing us in, making us feel as if we are within the scene, yet separated from it by the fence and a small ravine.
The Transfiguration was the last painting by Raphael, the High Renaissance master and rival of Michelangelo who is buried in Rome’s Pantheon. Originally intended for Narbonne Cathedral in France, th painting was commissioned by Pope Clement VII and is now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana. There is a mosaic copy of this painting in St. Peter’s.
We see a pyramidal composition with Christ at the apex. With hands raised Christ looks upward, floating in a mandorla of clouds and light, flanked once again by Moses and Elijah as the awestruck apostles lay sprawled below. But in the scene below, Raphael has painted the apostles attempting and failing to cure the possessed or epilectic boy, a story told in the gospels of both Matthew (17:14-21) and Mark (9:14) immediately following the Transfiguration. The figure in the left foreground may be the apostle Matthew, both drawing us into the painting by his nearness yet gesturing to us to wait. The apostle in red looks at the boy while pointing up the mountain to Christ, his pointing finger the only thing that crosses the shadowy boundary between the two scenes. The mysterious woman in the central foreground, with the attire and hairstyle of a Greek goddess, is painted in cooler colors than the others and kneels down while pointing at the boy with both hands.
The style of the painting, with its dramatic chiaroscuro, the twisted figures, and the visible emotion of the possessed boy and his parents, is considered to be a precursor to Mannerism and early Baroque art. Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists, wrote that this painting was Raphael’s “most beautiful and most divine work.”
This is by a contemporary Outsider artist I found randomly online when I googled Transfiguration. I love the brilliant shards of light in the center to denote the radiant transfigured Christ, surrounded by the golden mandorla. You can see the figures surrounding him and the darkness of the terrestrial world that contrasts starkly with the splendor of the heavenly Christ.
As an art historian, naturally I’m interested in the visual. Transfiguration art works and scripture seem, at first, to be all about vision. The apostles see a vision of Jesus transfigured in overwhelming light, along with envisioning the two prophets. Jesus sometimes seems to be looking right at us, seeing us clearly. People who were not present in the text are portrayed as sharing the vision. The eyes of the possessed boy and his father in the Raphael are exaggerated and bulging, as if beholding some supernatural vision. The contemporary work is the artist’s expressionistic abstracted vision of the event.
And yet, God says to the apostles who witness the event, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Listen.
Lent is our time to look and listen. Through our devotional practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving we can use this period to slow down, to spend some quiet time on our own mountaintop, to listen to our interior voice.
Select one of the works above and just sit with it for several minutes, looking at it meditatively while you listen for that “still, small voice” of the Lord whispering in your heart. What is He telling you? Which person in the painting draws you and why? What feelings arise? What knowledge or message comes into your mind? You might journal about what you experience.