Africa, July/August 2019, Vol. 84 No. 6
Feast of the Month, August 6th
The Transfiguration of the Lord
On August 6th we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There in their presence he was transfigured: his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as dazzling as light…(Matt 17:1-2). Mark and Luke also give us an account of this event in their gospels.
At this remove, it’s practically impossible for us to appreciate the impact the experience must have had on Peter, James and John. Until recently, they had simply gone fishing every day to make a living. Now suddenly, before their eyes, something almost beyond description is unfolding. Their friend – whom they thought they knew – is changed, utterly. He is shown to them as something – someone – entirely different; they couldn’t be sure what. They see him chatting with Moses and Elijah, who have been dead for hundreds of years. And as if that weren’t enough, they hear a voice giving him a stamp of approval as it were – validating him: This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favour. Listen to him. Who is speaking? Could it be Yahweh – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Is it any wonder Peter loses the run of himself!
And for all of the 2,000 years that have passed since, people have wrestled with it – the identity of Jesus: his humanity and his divinity. It gave rise to heresies galore in the early Church as people came down on one side or the other. But the gospel accounts would want to leave us in no doubt that he was, and is, both – fully human and fully divine. It wasn’t until the Council of Nicaea in 325 that the doctrine was finally pinned down in what we know as the Nicene Creed. But I’m afraid, that didn’t make it any easier for us to grasp either.
Nevertheless, it’s not surprising that the mystery and drama of the scene, captured the imaginations of artists down through the centuries and it has been depicted in countless mosaics, frescoes and paintings. I thought it would be interesting to look briefly at how it is depicted in one of the greatest of those representations, in Raphael’s The Transfiguration of Christ.
Raphael was born in Urbino, Italy on Good Friday in 1483 and he died on Good Friday in 1520. He was both a painter and an architect. He and Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci form what has been called “the trinity of great masters” of the High Renaissance. The Transfiguration of Christ was his last painting. He began it 1516 and it was not quite finished when he died although it was already being hailed as a masterpiece. For some 300 years it would be considered the most famous oil-painting in the world. It was not until the early 20th century that paintings like the Mona Lisa would claim this distinction.
So what is so special about this particular interpretation and does it have anything helpful to say to us today? I think it does…because in it, Raphael not only tells the story as it was recorded in the gospels, but he also suggests a theological interpretation – a religious/spiritual meaning that even now, gives us plenty of food for thought.
Let’s first take a look at the structure. Clearly the painting is divided into two parts – upper and lower. In an approach unique to Raphael, two stories from the gospel of Matthew are combined. The upper is the transfiguration scene and the lower is the story of a boy who is possessed by a demon (see Matt 17: 1- 21). One story immediately follows the other in Matthew and of course, this is not by accident – they are linked, and the link is a key to the painting.
The central figure of the upper panel – and of the entire painting – is the transfigured Jesus, the Christ. He is flanked by two of the most revered figures of the tradition: Moses, who represents the Law, and Elijah, representing the prophets. Jesus the Christ, at the apex, is being presented as the fulfilment of those two great traditions. All that has gone before in the religious history of the people of Israel, is coming together in Him. Something new is beginning with Jesus.
Even the way the painting is lit draws our attention to this. The light emanates from one source only, the transfigured Jesus, and he illuminates the clouds, the historical figures and the three apostles. The same Light of Christ illuminates the lower panel too, albeit with a little more shadow. Now that they have witnessed it, it is through Peter, James and John that the divinity of Jesus will be revealed to the others and through them, to future generations. Is Raphael making a comment here about the role/function of the Church?
The lower panel is equally fascinating. While Peter, James and John are having their extraordinary experience on Mount Tabor, what are the other apostles up to? Well, they are dealing with the human condition, in all its frailty and weakness and in all its longing for healing at every level. In other words, they are us. This is the realm in which we live, the realm of light… and shadow.
They are being approached by a family group who have brought their son to be healed. They understand the boy to be possessed by a demon. From Matthew’s description it sounds like epilepsy, which was feared just as much in Raphael’s day as it was at the time of Jesus. But he could just as well represent all of the trials and tribulations of the human condition. His face contorts with suffering. His body is torn with one arm stretched up and the other down, as if he is being pulled towards both heaven and hell. Raphael depicts the family as a very focused unit – all stare intently towards the apostles. All their hope is in them.
And how are the apostles coping? Well, they aren’t. In fact, they are overwhelmed – their bodies turned, their arms pointing every which way, indicating their disarray. Raphael seems to be making the point that without Jesus, they are quite helpless in the face of human suffering. Their faith is not strong enough for them to realize that, in fact, they are not alone – that Jesus the Christ throws light on all human experience. And so they are unable to help. In fact, some have their backs to the Light as though relying on their own abilities alone.
Which brings us to the figure in the centre of the lower panel. While Jesus the Christ dominates the entire painting, this woman is second in visual importance. She belongs to neither group – she is set apart by her colouring. Her body is turned and twisted in several directions and so she connects with the family, the apostles and us, the viewers, simultaneously.
She is Faith. She reminds the apostles of the key ingredient that is missing from their work. She is also showing them how to respond to the revelation of God in the upper panel. She is the link between the two stories and she is the bridge that would enable healing to flow from one group to the other.
Raphael seems to be making the point that she is calling all of us to believe, for without faith, we are in disarray in the face of life’s major challenges.
For me, the most inspiring insight of this masterpiece is the idea that all of our human experience – the joy and the struggle – is bathed in the Light of Christ. Truly, we are never alone. And while we may have our backs to the Light from time to time – and sometimes we might like it that way – the Light is always there. Christ is always there to guide our steps, to lift our spirits and to bring healing to our often troubled souls. St Paul in Romans 8:38-39 puts it like this: For I am certain of this: neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nothing already in existence and nothing still to come, not any power, nor height nor depth, nor any created thing whatever, will be able to come between us and the love of God, made visible in Christ Jesus, Our Lord.
Raphael was only 37 when he died.
©Africa, St Patrick's Missions Magazine