Tuesday, August 02, 2022

The History of the Icon of the Transfiguration

This coming Saturday, August 6th, is the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. To mark this event, I would like to present a short history of the development of the traditional icon of the Transfiguration, based on a chapter devoted to the subject in Aidan Hart’s excellent book, Festal Icons. Hart’s account is a 40-pages long and has far more detail than I can supply here.  

The chapter follows the general pattern of his approach to describing 14 festal icons: he outlines the history of the feast itself, the history of the development of the icon, and then systematically discusses the main features of the icon as it is generally recognized today, introducing us to the theology associated with the feast, and how that theology is communicated through an artistic vocabulary.
Icon painted by Theophan the Greek, 15th century
So, as Hart describes it, the earliest accounts of the celebration of the feast itself date back to liturgical documents from the Church in Jerusalem in the early 6th century. It spread from there, initially south to Sinai and north to Syria, and then through the whole Church. It was not formally adopted in Rome until 1456, when Pope Callixtus III ordered that it be held annually on 6 August, in gratitude for the defeat of the Turks at Belgrade that year. However, there are records of the Transfiguration of the Lord being celebrated in Spain in the 9th century.

Commentaries on the Scripture, Old Testament and New, that relate the importance of the Transfiguration predate this, as one might expect. In the 3rd century, for example, Origen describes how Tradition has passed on to him the understanding that the mountain in the New Testament accounts is Mount Tabor.  
The first images date back to the fifth century; by the 6th, we see two prototypes emerging. The first is more symbolic in nature and appears as a mosaic in the apse of the church of St Apollinare in Classe, outside Ravenna. 

As Hart explains:
The Saint Apollinare mosaic shows the three disciples as sheep, and the transfigured Christ as a massive bejewelled cross with a barely distinguishable bust of Christ at its centre. The strength of this magnificent work is the multivalenced theology. The Transfiguration is shown as a foretaste of Christ’s second coming in glory, preceded by the appearance in heaven of ‘the sign of the Son of Man’ (Matt 24, 30) which Church Tradition has always understood to be the cross. Another theme is the transfiguration of the whole of creation through the Church’s priestly ministry, expressed by Bishop Apollinaris standing in a paradisical scene in an attitude of epiclesis and consecration. 

The other prototype is shown in the apse of the katholikon of St Catherine’s Monastery on Mt Sinai, again dating from the 6th century.

As we can see, this is a more literal, less symbolic representation. The Council of Trullo (which was not an Ecumenical Council) held in the late 7th century, banned symbolic representations of Christ and the Saints. 

Three theological themes of the Transfiguration are consistently emphasized visually:

Christ’s divinity, which is His nature; each Christian’s deification, which is granted by grace: and Trinitarian love which is experienced by the Church through her mutual love, sacraments and liturgical life.

Hart gives a fascinating account of, for example, the ways in which the different designs of the aureole - the layered envelope that surrounds the figure of Christ - are all ordered to communicate His divinity, and the connection of the Holy Spirit through the rays that emanate from it, complementing the voice of the Father that was heard.

So, for example, the rays are very often painted as triple rays, indicating the relationship of those touched by the rays with the Trinity in the Holy Spirit and through Christ. The eight-pointed star indicates Christ as the 8th day of creation. St Maximus the Confessor commented, Hart tells us, that the perfect number 6 denotes the perfection of the work of the creation of the cosmos, and the ideal of the perfected work of man in prayer, meditation, and good works. The number 7, the day of rest, indicates contemplation; and the number 8 deification.

The darkness is a cloud of unknowing, or rather, of ignorance, which indicates the mystery of God known to the degree that he reveals Himself to us through Christ, at its center, and through our encounter with Him in the Holy Spirit. 

Hart also points out that Christ was always both human and divine, as seen in the Transfiguration. The miracle, therefore, he says, might be considered not so much that we see his glory here, but rather that He hid it in the rest of His earthly mission.

Through the chapter, Hart by turn analyses the compositional structure, the portrayal of the Saviour, the portrayal of Light in relation to darkness, the portrayal of the prophets and disciples, the structure of the mountain, and the colors used. In each case, he describes how the different choices available to the iconographer are all connected to different theological messages. There is even a section on the influence of hesychasm and how the theology of Gregory Palamas (not always received enthusiastically in the West) has affected the images we see today.

To illustrate, referring back to the discussion of the aureole, he describes the three different varieties of shapes used within it: 

He then describes the variation in the number of rays, and why the internal color can be either blue or red. So this 16th-century example shown below, photographed from the book, has an arrowhead shape with three downward pointing corners, indicating the personal relationship of the disciples (and all Christians) with Christ, and multiple dark triangular rays indicating God’s generosity, in that this is open to all people.

One little aside, which is my observation in reaction to this: in the images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we see similar dark triangular rays within the aureole, with the darkness widening as they get closer to the center, just as in the aureole around Christ above.

This has always suggested to me that the aureole is there not for Our Lady, but rather for Our Lord who is present in the womb of the pregnant Virgin. This then begs the questions: how many artists in early 16th century Mexico were aware of the conventions of painting aureoles in contemporary Byzantine icons? I suggest that the answer is just one: the Creator Himself!

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