The ‘official date of remembrance’ for the Transfiguration of Jesus is August 6th, but we hear this story on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany every year in our lectionary. Found in all three gospels (Year A: Matthew 17:1-9; Year B: Mark 9:2-9; and Year C: Luke 9:28-26), the narrative is richly woven with themes and symbols drawn from Israel’s past and its hopes for the future. Moses and Elijah represent the law and the prophets, whose promises Jesus fulfills. The chosen disciples (Peter, James, and John) see divine glory reflected in Jesus’ human person. They hear a voice from the cloud declaring that he is the beloved son.
- Exodus 34:29-35 – Moses’ face shines after he speaks with the LORD. (Year C)
- Psalm 99 or 99:5-9 – God speaks to Israel’s leaders from a pillar of cloud (Year C)
- 2 Peter 1:13-21 – The apostle Peter recalls his vision of Jesus in majesty on the holy mountain (Year A)
- Luke 9:28-36 – The story of Jesus’ transfiguration (Year C)
What is transfiguration?
In today’s culture, one might first think of the Harry Potter series in which author J.K. Rowling describes it as the art of changing the form and appearance of an object and the vanishing of objects. This magical art is part of the curriculum at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. As many would say, she is using biblical themes to tell her story of good vs. evil.
Some Christian definitions: trans·fig·u·ra·tion (trăns-fĭg’yə-rā’shən) n.
- A marked change in form or appearance; a metamorphosis.
- A change that glorifies or exalts.
- Bible: The sudden emanation of radiance from the person of Jesus that occurred on a mountain.
- The Christian feast commemorating this event, observed on August 6 in the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, on August 19 in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and on the Sunday before Lent in most Protestant churches.
An interesting way to explore the Transfiguration is to examine how we have interpreted this supernatural manifestation throughout the centuries. One way is through art; iconography allows for deep meditation and a glimpse of how others understand this event.
About the paintings and artists:
Raphael’s painting: The composition is divided in two distinct parts, relating to successive episodes of the Gospel of Matthew. The upper part of the painting shows the Transfiguration itself (on Mount Tabor, according to tradition), with the transfigured Christ floating in front of softly illuminated clouds, between the prophets Moses and Elijah with whom he is discoursing as recorded in the account of Matthew. In the lower part, Raphael depicts the Apostles attempting, unsuccessfully, to free the possessed boy of his demonic possession. They are unable to cure the sick child until the arrival of the recently transfigured Christ, who performs a miracle.
Rublev’s Icon – Painted in 1405 for the Liturgical Feast Row in the iconostasis of the Annunciation Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin. As in his Holy Trinity, Rublev discards everything superficial, leaving only the six essential figures, beautifully composed into two groups of three and connected only by the rays of light emanating from the mandorla of Christ. The group at the top reminds us of Rublev’s greatest masterpiece by the gentle curvature of the bodies of Elijah and Moses, enveloping, as it were, the central figure of Christ.
Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s painting – Christ Leading Peter, James, and John to the High Mountain for the Transfiguration, 1770s/1780s
Chartes Window (France) – The Transfiguration, with Moses and Elijah appearing next to Christ and the apostles Peter, James and John watching in awe from below. Detail of the Passion Window from Chartes Cathedral is the left lancet window (as seen from the inside) beneath the west rose. One of only four windows dating from before 1150, it depicts scenes from the end of Christ’s life, his passion and his resurrection.
Fr. John Giuliani – Asked to explain his decision to portray the faces of the sacred as Native Americans, Giuliani explains: “As a Catholic priest and son of Italian immigrants I bear the religious and ethnic burden of ancestral crimes perpetrated on the first inhabitants of the Americas. Many have been converted to Christianity, but in doing so some find it difficult to retain their indigenous culture. My intent, therefore, in depicting Christian saints as Native Americans is to honor them and to acknowledge their original spiritual presence on this land. It is this original Native American spirituality that I attempt to celebrate in rendering the beauty and excellence of their craft as well as the dignity of their persons.” You can learn more about Fr. Giulani here and see more of his artwork.