Apse mosaic of the Transfiguration by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Apse mosaic of the Transfiguration, 565–66, Mosaic, Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, LatitudeStock / Alamy Stock Photo

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Transcendent Glory

Read by Lydia Ayoade

…glory as of the only Son from the Father.

Introducing Jesus in terms of light, as the Gospel of John does, this mosaic fills the high, rounded semi-dome of the apse in the church built for Mount Sinai’s monastic community in the mid-sixth century CE by the emperor Justinian.

The materials of the mosaic illustrate Christ’s divine glory in alternating aspects of splendour, in the perpetual, repeated movement between morning and evening light. White stone, and silver embedded in glass in small cubes called tesserae, fill the apse with silvery-whiteness when morning sun lights the conch from windows above and below. In evening daylight or lamplight the whole space changes to the glow of gold, reflecting from gold-glass tesserae. Heavenly blue in almond-shaped zones of gradation surround Christ’s dazzling figure whichever background tone predominates.

This luminously dynamic intimation of Christ’s glory illustrates the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–9; Mark 9:2–9; Luke 9:28–36). Here, John, Peter, and James (shown and named) witness a stupendous confirmation of Jesus’s more-than-earthly identity. By an inversion typical of the writing of Sinai’s most famous abbot, John of the Ladder (John Climacus, c.579–650) the scene, instead of depicting a mountaintop, makes the height of the hollow space above the altar the mountain’s spiritual equivalent. It celebrates a pinnacle in the relationship between heaven and earth, as played out on Mount Sinai/Horeb and on Mount Tabor, where according to Anastasius, another seventh-century Sinai abbot, the Transfiguration took place.

John and James hold up their hands in a traditional gesture of prayer, while Peter, stunned, stretches out half-kneeling on the ground, holding his mantle to shield his eyes. How can they understand, in this voltaic glory, Christ’s fusion of the prophetic past with the promised future?

Still growing outside the Sinai church was believed to be the burning bush from which divinity had shone like fire. There God had spoken with Moses and given him the Law. On this same mountain, God had spoken to Elijah, sending terrifying manifestations and summoning him out of a cave. According to Luke, the revelation of Jesus shining with the glory of divinity woke his three followers out of sleep, just as the version of the scene in this mosaic seems to offer its viewers a spiritual awakening, and a promise of grace and truth in the glory of divine nature made visible in Jesus. John 1:14’s announcement here becomes dramatic experience.

Dazed by the light, John and James and Peter turn their heads to listen, hearing God’s voice explain the glory of Christ. The face of Jesus suggests his own attentive listening.

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