The Transfiguration Through Art

Jason Micheli —  January 25, 2014 — 1 Comment
This is from friend, Janet Laisch. Here she takes a look at the Transfiguration’s depiction in Christian art. ARTSTOR_103_41822001544848Most of us would like to see an image like the one above–a beautiful person through whom God’s light emanates and makes His presence in our lives known here on Earth. This mosaic depicts the Transfiguration, said to have occurred on Mount Tabor in Israel near the Sea of Galilee (map shown below),  as described in the book of Mark, and depicted in art beginning in the sixth century
Mark wrote about the transfiguration,

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
galileeSaint Catherine’s Monastery (image shown below) at Mount Sinai, Egypt, is the very location of the first theophany when God appeared to Moses as a burning bush as described in Exodus 3 and to Elijah, though only in a soft whisper as accounted in the book of Kings.
It is inside Saint Catherine’s monastery that the earliest, from 565-6, surviving image of Christ’s transfiguration can be found.
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In the apse, just above the high altar a team of mosaic artisans laid tesserae, cut semi-precious stones, glass and gold and set them directly into wet plaster to adhere to the wall.  Each character from the Transfiguration can be identified from left to right:  Elijah stands with his fingers blessing Christ, a young clean-shaven John kneels, turning his head toward Christ, a gray haired and bearded Peter is laying down, turning his head toward Christ, a young, bearded James kneels and turning his head toward Christ, and Moses stands on the right blessing Christ.  Christ invited the three apostles closest to him to ascend Mount Tabor, knowing they would experience together God first-hand.
In the center, Christ is enveloped in a mandorla–an Italian word for almond which results from two circles overlapping –and used in Christian art to symbolize the sacred moments when the human and divine meet and which transcend time and space. Within it, the blue bands become darker as they move toward Jesus. As divinity increases, there is no way to depict its brightness, except by darkness.The darkest color represents the “uncreated light” of God; God is dark because He existed before He created light for all the world.
From Christ and from the mandorla, rays of light emanate, touching the prophets and apostles. Christ’s ring finger and thumb form a circle– the alpha and omega– the beginning and the end. A dark blue band surrounds this scene decorated with medallions of the twelve Apostles. The three Apostles included in the Transfiguration have been replaced by medallions of Paul, Thaddaeus and Matthias. The base of the apse is bordered by another series of fifteen medallions with busts of the Prophets, including Jesus’s human predecessor, King David in the center.
ARTSTOR_103_41822001544848038This mosaic should be understood according to its placement in the church–above the high altar where the sacrament of holy communion occurs. Congregants experience Christ as truly present during Communion through bread and wine.
Through communion and prayer at the high altar, this scene served a purpose to inspire a Holy vision or at least to enable the viewer to contemplate the event and feel invited to partake in it.
Furthermore, the Transfiguration image should be understood in context of the images surrounding it just as one story in the bible has greater meaning when understood in the context of the continuity of the old and new testament, this image has greater meaning than a single image.
335-066It is Christ’s sacrificial role that is particularly important (see image above). Four symbols along the vertical axis represent God incarnate:
(1) Jesus Christ in the mandorla
(2) directly above is a cross in a medallion–symbolizing Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
(3) overlapping this cross is an image of a lamb –recalling John’s description of Christ as a sacrificial lamb in Revelations 5:6
(4) and directly below Peter is a medallion of King David, to whom Jesus is a descendant by blood through Mary.
The juxtaposition of God’s incarnation and transfiguration stories is popular in manuscript illumination as well, particularly after the iconoclasm controversy resolved. In an illuminated manuscript from circa 1025, (image shown below), the vellum image is divided into two registers. In the top register, the artist depicted the nativity when God became incarnate and in the bottom register, the Transfiguration. In both registers Jesus is larger than the other figures, establishing His greater importance through size.
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Too, this mosaic (image above) is on the east end of the church where the sun rises and where Christ will come again. There is a direct link between this theophany and Christ’s Second Coming. God becoming man is necessary before the second coming when Christ will raise from the dead and make Creation whole again through our unity with God. Humankind can only ascend and become deified as gods– with a lowercase g– and mirror God’s image because God had descended to the earth and lived among us.
Looking again at the mosaic at the Monastery, the apostles witness that which the old testament prophets had until the Transfiguration only looked forward–God standing before them in human form. Thus, the continuity between the old and new testament is represented (see image below).  Place your finger on Elijah who stands to Christ’s left and stop at the image of John the Baptist in a medallion. Here John the Baptist is the new Elijah–they are two prophets who went against the grain of society.
Now look at Moses and trace your finger to the right stopping at the image of Mary, Mother of Jesus in a medallion. The first theophany is highlighted twice more in the mosaics of Moses loosening his sandals (image below) and Moses receiving the law tablets (image below). If we understand the continuity of the old and new testament, we may see the relationship between God’s first theophany and the incarnation of God at Christ’s birth.
Mary’s womb like the burning bush contained God’s light and so God’s appearance to Moses in a burning bush is analogous to the birth of Jesus Christ.
And too the appearance of God on Mount Sinai is analogous to the transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor.
335-066Another surviving Transfiguration apse mosaic can be found at the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna (image above), Italy dating from 533-549, though it is depicted symbolically rather than figuratively. The man standing in the center is not Christ but rather the Bishop of Ravenna who strategically aligns himself with the story (image below). He is symbolically deified. To his left and right are a total of twelve sheep representing his “flock” or church members.  Above them is the transfiguration scene, with Christ symbolically represented as a cross in a circular “mandorla.”  Like the previous mandorla, it along with the gold background symbolically represent a timeless, eternal image. The artist does not attempt to convey a realistic space. To the left of the cross is a single lamb, most likely Peter, the only apostle who spoke to Jesus during the transfiguration and to the right, James and John are depicted as lambs.  Above the cross on the left is Moses and the right Elijah. From the top, a hand descends symbolically as God’s theophany when He spoke and enveloped them in a cloud.
The Transfiguration and the end of time are combined in one scene. The lush green background filled with lambs references the end of time when God’s Creation is made whole again.  Above the scene there are two city gates, on the left is Jerusalem and on the right is Bethlehem with six lambs ascending the hill, referencing the continuity of the Old and New Testament through the juxtaposition of these old and new testament cities. Above from left to right are the four evangelists in symbolic form, the eagle John, the winged man, Matthew, Christ Pantokrator-a compound Greek word meaning all accomplishing, the Lion Mark, and the Ox Luke.  This image aligns the Transfiguration with the end of time when Creation is restored.

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Unlike earlier representations, Renaissance and Baroque examples typically depict God’s appearance as a cloud at the Transfiguration (see three examples below). “Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
Also the colors are reversed from earlier mandorlas since these examples show brighter color resulting closer to Jesus. These later images remind us too of Christ’s apotheosis when He is raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father.
Transfiguration_RaphaelRaphael painted the Transfiguration in about 1520. The account of the Transfiguration is followed in this work of art as it is in the bible by the episode of Jesus healing a boy with an evil spirit.

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Gherardi,_Cristofano_-_Transfiguration_-_1555The Mandorla in the Transfiguration images also aligns this story with the promise of Christ’s Second Coming when all the world will be healed. Representations of the Second Coming show Christ surrounded by the mandorla, familiar Transfiguration iconography.  At the transfiguration, Peter does not want to wait for the Second Coming as he prefers to stay on Mount Tabor where he feels an intense unification with Christ. Mark wrote,”Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”  God became man so that we can begin the process of becoming whole again on Earth.
Fortunate people recognize when they have experienced such a theophany at work in their lives so they too can become the person God intended for them to be. If any of us experience a theophany, God’s intense presence in this lifetime,  like Peter, why would we ever want to go back down the mountain?

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Jason Micheli

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One response to The Transfiguration Through Art

  1. This was so interesting in person during the Pastors’ class, but I am so glad you posted this with even more detail. We all felt like we learned so much, Janet was great.

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