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Icons of the Great Feasts of the Church Year: The Transfiguration

August 6th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Russian (Novgorodian) work of the late 15th century. The elongated figures suggest a Muscovite influence. Unusual are the bright colors.

 (click on the icons to see clearer images)

Another Great Feast of the (Eastern and Eastern Rite Catholic) Church is today, August 6: the Feast of the Transfiguration. (In the West, as well.) It is a very ancient feast.  St. Helen (Constantine’s mother) had a church built on Mt. Tabor in 326 to commemorate the event. Many homilies on the Transfiguration indicate that the feast was celebrated in the East well before the 8th century when it is was celebrated as a great solemnity with a canon authored by St. John Damascene. In the West, the Transfiguration was celebrated from antiquity on the second Sunday of Lent. In the 9th century, in Spain, it appears as a feast on August 6 but otherwise remained relatively unknown until it was recognized as a festival in the Church in 1475 by Pope Clement III. Whereas the feast of the Transfiguration is recognized as a Great Feast in the East it is of secondary rank in the West.

The event is recorded in Mathew (17:1-8), Mark (9:2-8) and Luke (9:28-36). Jesus took three of his apostles up a high mountain and was transfigured before their eyes, showing them His Divinity. Appearing with Jesus were Moses and Elijah talking with Him.  A bight cloud overshadowed the apostles and from it a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved (Chosen); listen to Him!” The apostles fell over in utter terror.

Theophanes the Greek, late 14th century. Christ's raiment is a bright whitish color that radiates in several directions almost like a star.

There have been several variations in the depiction of the Transfiguration but the one we will look at in this post is probably the most common.  The composition is approximately symmetrical with variations in color and the poses and gestures of the figures. Jesus, dressed in pure white toward the center top of the icon, usually seems to float in front of a mandorla of blue concentric circles, with Moses (often depicted with a book or tablets that symbolize the Ten Commandments) on the right and, on the left, the Old Testament prophet Elijah. Christ appears at the top of a mountain peak. Often, as in our example, Moses and Elijah stand at the tops of two flanking mountains.

The apostles, Peter, James and John are shown in the bottom half of the icon reacting to the voice; they have fallen to the ground in fear, turning away or shielding their eyes from the bright light. Peter, while having turned his back to the scene, is usually shown in a gesture of speaking to Christ symbolizing his awkward suggestion to the Lord that they (the apostles) should build three dwellings for Jesus and the two Old Testament prophets. On the far left is James, on his back and covering his eyes. In the center is John (with his traditional red robe) who tumbled over backwards and now supports himself with his left arm while covering his eyes.

Another interpretation. Russian, 15th Century.

The main theme of the icon is the revelation of the Divinity of Jesus Christ. He shows the apostles His Divinity which is nothing less than the Godhead, the Most Holy Trinity: “For in Him the whole fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily” (Col 2, 9). The apostles heard the Father (the voice), saw the Son and were enveloped by the Holy Spirit (the “bright cloud”). In the transfiguration Jesus is seen by the apostles as being transformed from one state of being into another.

The light that Peter, James and John reported to have seen was not natural light but the supernatural energy that is the Holy Trinity. But, no one can “see God and live.” How could they have seen God and lived to tell about it?

What the three saw could only be described (as the Gospel writers did) as a “face shone like the sun”, and clothes that “became dazzling white”, “such as no one on earth could bleach them.”  They were allowed to catch a glimpse of the Trinity but only to the extent to which they were capable. The awesome experience so threatened their very lives that they fell down in terror. They actually ‘saw’ what had been only indirectly experienced in such Old Testament things as the burning bush, pillar of fire, and the fire on Mount Carmel.

Because of the Incarnation, the God Moses and Elijah had served so faithfully without actually seeing, could now be seen and spoken to by them, face to face. That experience will be the same for us who remain faithful to the Lord.

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References

The Mystical Language of Icons, by Solrunn Nes, (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005) p. 68

The Meaning of Icons, Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir Lossky, (Crestwood, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989), pp. 209-212

Picture Sources

First 2 images: http://tars.rollins.edu/Foreign_Lang/Russian/transfig.html

Bottom image: http://counterlightsrantsandblather1.blogspot.com/2009/08/russian-avant-garde-part-1-suprematism.html

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One Response to “Icons of the Great Feasts of the Church Year: The Transfiguration”

  1. avatar Raymond F. Rice says:

    Bernie!!!

    This is a very nice article on icons; made me think again about prayer and sacred art. Maybe I will get another one and pray a little more often in front of it, especially if the church is not available because of Guys and Dolls playing there!!! LOL

    Really like your articles!!!!!!

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