Saturday, August 6, 2011

“He Was Transfigured Before Them”

Anonymous, Transfiguration
Flemish, Late 16th-Century
Paris, Musédu Louvre, Cabinet des dessins
“Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother, John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,
conversing with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
"Lord, it is good that we are here.
If you wish, I will make three tents here,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, behold,
a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,
then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him.”
When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate
and were very much afraid.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying,
“Rise, and do not be afraid.”
And when the disciples raised their eyes,
they saw no one else but Jesus alone.
As they were coming down from the mountain,
Jesus charged them,
“Do not tell the vision to anyone
until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
(Matthew 17:1-9)

This passage on the Transfiguration of the Lord from the Gospel of Matthew is one of the three descriptions of this mysterious event from the Synoptic Gospels. The others are Mark 9:2-9 and Luke 9:28-36.

One of the three is read on the Second Sunday of Lent in all three cycles. All agree on the basics: the mountain, the names of the three disciples, the transformation of Jesus, the appearance of Moses and Elijah, the voice from the cloud and the admonition to keep this event secret.

The event is one of the theophanies of Jesus, the others being the Epiphany, the Baptism, the Resurrection appearances and the Ascension. A theophany is a manifestation in visible form of the divine. Among the theophanies of Jesus it is the first in which the divine character of Jesus is made completely explicit and is a precursor of the Resurrection and Ascension. It is also seen as prefiguring the return of Jesus in glory at the end of time.1

A separate feast of the Transfiguration, celebrated on August 6th, can be traced back to the sixth century in the Eastern (Greek-speaking) Church. It appears in the ninth century in Spain and became general in the Western (Latin-speaking) Church in 1457. 1 

Visually, the image of the Transfiguration has been used in decoration, both East and West, since the sixth century. Its development is very similar in many ways to that of the Resurrection and the Ascension, to which it is obviously related.

Apse Mosaic, ca. 549
Ravenna, Sant'Apollinare in Classe

Among the earliest images are two mosaics from the mid-sixth century, one in Italy, at Sant’Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna, and the other in the famous monastery of St. Catherine of Sinai. Both were built during the reign of the Emperor Justinian, the great builder of Hagia Sofia in Constantinople. Both images bedeck the half domes of the apses of both basilicas, but they couldn’t be more different, although they also share some visual elements..

The image in Sant’Apollinare is symbolic rather than figural.  Although there are half-length figures of Moses and Elijah floating amid clouds, these are the only human figures in the scene of the Transfiguration. Jesus is represented by a golden, jeweled cross seen against a round blue, star studded heaven (with a bust of Jesus in the intersection of the upright and arms) and the Apostles are represented by three sheep. Instead of a mountain setting, this vision is set in an earthly paradise of green fields, trees, plants, birds and small animals. The Hand of God appears at the top of the scene, a visual representation of the Voice of God from the Scriptures. However, beautiful as the work is, it represents a dead end visually.

Its near contemporary at St. Catherine’s establishes the way forward for this image.  (You may watch a video on the recent restoration of this nearly 1,500 year old mosaic at 
Apse Mosaic, 565-566
Sinai, Monastery of St. Catherine
Although the golden background setting is abstract the vision that we see is easily recognizable. The figure of Jesus, His hand raised in a gesture of blessing, is seen standing in the middle of a blue egg-shaped mandorla. Rays of silvery light seem to emerge from Him and connect Him to the figures of Moses, Elijah and the three Apostles. The two Old Testament figures also make a blessing gesture, while the Apostles register astonishment and awe.

This is the arrangement that would reappear for centuries to come: 

In the 9th-century church of Saints Nereus and Achilleus in Rome.
Arch Mosaic
Byzantine, 9th Century
Rome, Saints Nereus and Achilleus

 In the 11th-century church of the Dormition of the Virgin in Daphni in Greece. In this image we begin to see the first indication of the mountain setting. This is incorporated in later images.

Byzantine, Late 11th Century
Daphni, Church of the Dormition

In the late 10th-century Gospels of Otto III.

Transfiguration from Gospels of Otto III
German (Reichenau School), Late 10th Century
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4453, fol. 113r

In a 12th-century Italo-Byzantine ivory with Scenes from the Life of Christ.

Transfiguration (Detail of Scenes from Life of Christ)
Italo-Byzantine Ivory Carving, 12th Century
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

In the mid-12th-century Bible de Floreffe from the Mosan region the page is divided into two zones. In the upper zone we see the scene of the Transfiguration. In the lower zone a depiction of the Last Supper and of the Washing of the Feet.

Transfiguration and Last Supper
From the Floreffe Bible
Mosan School, ca. 1150-1200
London, British Library
MS Additional 17738, fol. 4

The somewhat unusual juxtaposition of these two scenes suggests that there is a reference to the doctrine of Transubstantiation here.  Transubstantiation is the Catholic belief that at the consecration of the Mass the bread and wine become identical in substance to the Body and Blood of Christ, while still retaining their forms as bread and wine.  The implication of this image is that: just as the Divine Nature of Christ, revealed at the Transfiguration, was concealed from the Apostles under His human form, so His Divine Presence is concealed from us under the forms of bread and wine.  The caption that runs down the right side of the page underlines this meaning.  It reads:  "He transforms himself and reforms their hearts...that they may perceive the good things which are going to endure."2

That such a theme would be expressed here is not surprising.  This Bible was produced for the Abbey of Floreffe in Belgium.  The Abbey was founded in 1121 by St. Norbert, the founder of the Order of Praemonstratensians.  One of the aims for which this congregation was founded was to foster devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, the Holy Eucharist.

This Eucharistic allusion appears to have been specific to the Floreffe Bible, however.  The Transfiguration continued to appear as a "stand alone" image.

In a late 12th-century French Pictorial Bible.
From Pictorial Bible from the Abbey of St. Bertin in St. Omer
French, ca. 1190-1200
The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliothek
MS KB 76 F5, fol. 17v (detail)

In the early 14th-century panel by Duccio.

Duccio, Transfiguration
Italian, 1308-1311
London, National Gallery

In the late 14th-century French Grande Bible Historiale Completée.
Jean Bandol and Workshop, The Transfiguration
From Grande Bible Historiale Complétée of Gerard des Moulins
French, 1371-1372
The Hague, Museum Meermano
MS MMW 10 B23 fol. 475v (detail)

In the early 15th-century on the bronze doors of the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral by Lorenzo Ghiberti.
Ghiberti, Transfiguration
Italian, 1403-1411
 Florence, Baptistery

Up to this point, all the images have been more or less earthbound, even the figures of the two Old Testament prophets. They have been standing on the earth, either on a flat ground (in the St. Catherine’s and Sts. Nereus and Achilleus examples) or on the indication of mountains (in Daphni and later examples). Then, in the late 15th century, some of the figures become airborne. 

Among the earliest examples I have found include:

 the fresco in the Monastery of San Marco in Florence by Fra Angelico, dating from the 1440s, where the prophets are depicted as disembodied busts, 

Fra Angelico, The Transfiguration
Italian, c. 1441-1444
Florence, Monastery Museum of San Marco. Cell #6


in a Book of Hours (use of Paris) prepared by the illuminator Jean le Tavernier for Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy in the 1450s. This little grisaille illustration shows Jesus (full length) and the two prophets (half length) raised in the air above two mountain peaks and the figures of the Apostles.
Jean le Tavernier, Transfiguration
From Hours of Philip the Good
Netherlandish, 1450-1460
The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliothek
MS KB 76 F2, fol. 21r (detail)

Similar arrangements appear in the late 15th-century in a work by Perugino in Italy 
Perugino, Transfiguration
Italian, 1497-1500
Perugia, Collegio dell Cambio

and early in the 16th century Netherlands in a work by Gerard David dated 1520, where the earthbound Jesus is flanked by cloud borne images of the Prophets and God the Father appears in His own Person at the top (instead of being represented by the Hand of God, as He sometimes had been).

Gerard David, Transfiguration
Flemish, 1520
Bruges, Vourwekerk

But it is Raphael’s famous image, now in the Vatican Pinacoteca, that became the model for all future representations. The painting is divided into two distinct zones by the background lighting of each. In the upper zone we see the scene of the Transfiguration, in the lower zone we see the distress of the child afflicted with lunacy whose cure by Jesus is described in the verses of St. Matthew’s Gospel that follow immediately after He descends from the mountain (Matthew 17:13-18).

Raphael, Transfiguration
Italian, 1518-1520
Vatican City, Pinacoteca Vaticana

In the upper zone the figures of Jesus and the two Prophets are all airborne, not just lifted up but virtually flying. The bright clouds against which they are silhouetted have replaced the static mandorla of earlier pictures. The apostles have been forced to the ground, not just by awe, but by the eruption of energy above them. Bearing in mind the date of this work we can see that it is around the same date that the image of Christ bursting forth from the tomb in images of the Resurrection began to appear.

Later artists developed the image even further, using light and energy to present the moment of Transfiguration.    

Ludovico Carracci, Transfiguration
Italian, 1594
Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale
Cirro Ferri, Transfiguration
Italian, Undated (lived 1634-1689)
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Cristobal de Villalpando, Moses and the Brazen Serpent and the Transfiguration of Jesus
Mexican, 1683
Puebla, Catedral de Nuestra Seňora de la Immaculada Concepción

Jean Baptiste Robin, Transfiguration
French, 1780-1781
Chateau de Fontainebleu, Chapel

But by the end of the nineteenth century everyone was back on the ground again.
James Tissot, The Transfiguration
French, c. 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum
1. Gertrud Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, Vol. I (translated by Janet Seligman), Greenwich, CT, New York Graphic Society, Ltd., 1971, pp. 145-152.
2.  Elizabeth Saxon, The Eucharist in Romanesque France: iconography and theology, Rochester, NY, Boydell & Brewer, Inc., 2006, p. 104.

© M. Duffy, 2011/2012

1 comment:

Stephanie A. Mann said...

Thanks for a beautiful selection of paintings. It also gives me pause to think that Fra Angelico's work was in a Dominican friar's cell!