Matthew 17:2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.
Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Transfiguration, Fresco, 1440-1442, Fra Angelico, c. 1400-1455
In 1407, Guido di Pietro joined the Dominican order in Fiesole, Italy (near Florence) and at his vows took the name Giovanni. Thus he was known as Friar Giovanni da Fiesole (brother John of Fiesole). Artist/historian, Giorgio Vasari, referred to him as Fra Angelico (Brother John the Angelic one); today, he is known simply as Fra Angelico. His life as an artist was devoted to the Church and at the monastery of San Marcos in Florence he painted the walls of the cells (prayer and meditation rooms) with scenes from the life of Christ. The “Transfiguration” shown here is in cell number six.
Mathew gives the following account of the Transfiguration: “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light. And behold there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking to him.” (Matt. 17:1-3)
Christ, the central figure in Fra Angelico’s painting, is standing in a white robe with outstretched arms and is surrounded by a mandorla (a body halo). A traditional cruciform halo surrounds his head. Moses and Elijah are each presented here in bust form, not as full figures; Moses is on the left representing the law and Elijah is to the right representing the prophets. On the left side below Moses is the Virgin Mary with her arms folded across her chest. To the right, below Elijah, is Saint Dominic (in 1435 the Monastery of San Marcos was turned over to the Dominican order). He is standing with hands placed together in a position of prayer. Dominic’s mother reported seeing a star on his chest when he was born and in paintings, he can be identified by a star placed on or above his head. Mary and Dominic were not present at the Transfiguration but it is not unusual for artists to use creative license to include non-participating figures on the sidelines as observers of an important event. In the foreground are Peter, James, and John. They have just heard God’s voice say: “This is my son. Hear him” and “…they fell on their faces and were filled with awe.” (Matt. 17:5-6)
The actual site of the Transfiguration is not known; accounts in the Gospels do not name a specific mountain. Mt. Tabor is the traditional site but Jesus and the disciples were in the district of Caesarea Philippi prior to the Transfiguration and the closest mountain there is Mount Hermon. It is the highest mountain in Israel and it has been suggested this may have been the “high mountain” that is mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.
Hovak Najarian © 2014