Ben Quash: Jenny, the Transfiguration is an extraordinary event in the course of Jesus’s ministry, which is recounted in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the so-called Synoptic Gospels, with very small variations.
And it’s a moment when Jesus and three of his disciples go to the top of a mountain and suddenly his clothes, and in one case, according to Matthew, his face as well, are flooded with light, or he radiates light through his clothes and his body. And two prophets from the past, from the Old Testament, appear with him, Elijah and Moses, one on each side, and he talks to them in a cloud of glory.
Jennifer Sliwka: As you described the Transfiguration, what immediately comes to my mind is a very famous Byzantine icon, and it’s attributed to an artist called Theophanes the Greek.
And as his name suggests, he was Greek, but he was born in Constantinople, which of course was then the capital of the Byzantine empire, and then he goes off and works in Russia. And this icon was created for a cathedral dedicated to the Transfiguration. And it’s absolutely extraordinary. The way the figure of Jesus is represented is he is floating actually not on the top of the mountain, as he’s described in the Gospels, but above and in front of them. And he’s superimposed, in a way, on a series of arrow-like vectors, a kind of six-pointed star. And that six-pointed star in turn is superimposed on a series of concentric circles, all of these executed in white and gold, so he’s sort of hovering, almost three dimensionally, off this gold background.
Ben Quash: I think that’s brilliant because the geometric shapes, I think, are trying to capture something of the unnaturalness of this light. Or the fact that this is actually a heavenly light. It’s often described in theological tradition as ‘uncreated’ light, so not the kind of light you would see from the sun and the moon and the stars, but something different that comes, as it were, from the divinity of Christ himself and is bursting out.
Jennifer Sliwka: Absolutely. And actually that is the role of the icon itself. It is a kind of mediating image, isn’t it, between one world and the other?
Ben Quash: A window onto heaven, almost.
Jennifer Sliwka: And that’s just one way artists might deal with the very challenge of representing this uncreated light, as you described. I can think of another artist doing a very similar thing, this time not using gold and on a much larger scale, on a wall in a convent in Florence called San Marco.
And the artist is called Fra Angelico, so he was actually a member of the Dominican convent, and he represents the scene of the Transfiguration as a fresco in one of the cells where the clerics lived. So you can imagine waking up every morning and going to bed every night, and being confronted with this dramatic image. But of course he’s painting on a wall, so he’s not using gold leaf, and it’s not an icon. And so he suggests light in a very different way. Christ appears in a kind of mandorla, or almond shape. And that’s a very interesting shape that you actually find in the Byzantine tradition. It is an almond shape that’s actually formed by the coming together of two circles. So it has inherent within it a kind of creation, or something new is being evoked here.
Ben Quash: The comparison of this with the icon you began with shows just how much an artist can make a difference to the way one sees the text itself, because they’ve drawn out quite different things, it seems to me, from the three biblical accounts of the Transfiguration. And the emphasis in the icon seems to be very much on glory, and this display of glory. Some of the early church theologians said it was, almost the biggest miracle was that Jesus didn’t look like that all the time because, being divine and human, this was his kind of natural radiance, his natural glory. So he kept a lid on it all the time. And at this one moment the lid came off briefly. So glory seems to be a big theme in this ‘lid-off’ moment. Whereas in the fresco, the glory is there in this again unearthly mandorla you’ve described, but somehow we’re getting intimations of the suffering that’s to come. And I think that the outstretched arms of Christ have that very definite cruciform shape extending beyond the glory of the nimbus back into the real world, which is exactly what Jesus’s descent from the mountain is going to involve, a return back to the real world from glory towards the cross. And even that stubby mountain almost starts to look like an anticipation of the hill of Golgotha, where the cross will be placed and where Jesus will be crucified. So in all these respects, we have echoes of what’s to come that are not so much about glory but more about suffering. And it’s interesting that of the three accounts, Luke’s Gospel picks up very definitely on a moment of similarity between the Transfiguration and the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus will be in an agony of—a torment of—anticipation of his suffering because the disciples, in both cases, are a group of three who go to sleep. And Luke describes the three disciples on the mount of the Transfiguration as being almost overcome with sleep, but just, just fighting it off long enough to see this vision.
Jennifer Sliwka: What strikes me in the Gospel texts is the reiteration in each of certain words to describe how Christ is transfigured. The words used are ‘bright’, ‘brightness of light’, ‘appeared like a flash of light’, so I’m picturing a kind of lightning effect here. One Gospel account describes the clothing of Christ as whiter than any bleach could ever bleach a piece of textile. And again that strikes me as this is such a challenge for artists to represent. In a way, they can represent it using gold or reflective light as we’ve discussed, but they can never truly capture, I think, a kind of, that experiential aspect of it. And what that makes me think of is perhaps what artists who do installation work might be able to offer to this subject. And in particular, I’m thinking of an American artist called Dan Flavin who is very famous for his work in light installations. And actually what he uses is commercially available light tubes, fluorescent light tubes.
His biography is fascinating. He actually grew up, he was studying for the priesthood, so he’s very well versed in theology. And he used to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and study icons, and his sketch books are full of icons. And the first artworks that he made were actually icons in which he used light bulbs. He then abandoned the seminary to become an artist. And I’m thinking in particular of a series he worked on in the 1960s which he dedicated to a famous architect and scientist whom he admired very much, Vladimir Tatlin. And one of them, using these neon light tubes, is essentially a mandorla. It’s in the form of a mandorla. And the effect of this object in space is that it not only emanates the brightest, whitest light—almost, you know, it makes you blink when you’re in its presence, and it really does have a presence—the light reflects off the floor and off the surrounding walls wherever it’s installed, but you too, standing in front of it, are bathed in that brightness of light.
Ben Quash: And this installation is approximately the height of a human being, isn’t it? So the shape, the mandorla shape, which frames a human body as we’ve seen, here also at the height of human being, does have that extraordinary sense of presence. Although it’s so abstract, you feel you’re standing before someone, almost, don’t you? And I guess that Flavin’s intention was not deliberately to evoke the Transfiguration, but the effects of it are quite striking, especially when you see it in juxtaposition with the other two images that we’ve been looking at. And actually I think it gives something back to those two images, which is really wonderful, because however much Theophanes the Greek and Fra Angelico might have wanted the power to emit, for their works to emit light, they didn’t have those tools at their disposal. But in this twentieth-century work something new has become possible in the medium, which enables us to imagine what it felt like to be the disciples. So we saw, if you like, a kind of expanding from the icon’s inclusion of the prophets and the three disciples, out in the Fra Angelico to include Dominic and Mary. And finally in the Flavin image, that circle of glory is extended to include us as well, as though we too are drawn to the top of the mountain, bathed in light, and made witnesses of this extraordinary and otherworldly event.
17 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light. 3And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Eliʹjah, talking with him. 4And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Eliʹjah.” 5He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” 8And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
2 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves; and he was transfigured before them, 3and his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Eliʹjah with Moses; and they were talking to Jesus. 5And Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Eliʹjah.” 6For he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid. 7And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” 8And suddenly looking around they no longer saw any one with them but Jesus only.
28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. 30And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Eliʹjah, 31who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Eliʹjah”—not knowing what he said. 34As he said this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silence and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.