Transfiguration

Art for the Last Sunday After the Epiphany, Year C

Transfiguration, fresco, 1440-1442,
Fra Angelico, c. 1400-1455

Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]
Gospel reading for the Last Sunday After The Epiphany

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

When Jesus and his disciples were in the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked them “Who do they say the Son of man is?”  Discussions and teachings followed “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)

In Transfiguration, Christ is in a white robe with outstretched arms and, as appropriate, is the central figure .  In addition, Fra Angelico has placed him on a pedestal-like rock above everyone, and by design he is larger than the other figures.  Christ is surrounded by a mandorla (a body halo) and his head is surrounded by a traditional cruciform halo.

In this painting, Moses and Elijah are each presented in bust form, not as full figures; Moses, on the left with light emanating from his forehead represents the law and Elijah on the right represents the prophets.  [In some paintings of the Transfiguration, Moses is holding the Ten Commandments and a scroll is placed in the hands of Elijah.]

Below Moses, on the left, is the Virgin Mary with her hands crossed over her chest and 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 together in a position of prayer.  Dominic’s mother reported that she saw a star on his chest when he was born and sometimes (as here within his halo) he can be identified by a star placed above his head.  Of course, 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)

In 1407, Guido di Pietro joined the Dominican order in Fiesole, Italy (near Florence) and at his vows took the name Giovanni.  Thus he became known as Friar Giovanni da Fiesole (Brother John of Fiesole).  Artist and historian, Giorgio Vasari, referred to him as Brother John the angelic one and 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.  Fra Angelico’s Transfiguration is in cell number six.

In Europe, during the early part of the fifteenth century, medieval art was still a presence, but the City of Florence was at the heart of the Renaissance.    Fra Angelico was fully aware of the trend toward humanism that was influencing the art of his time.  The changes that were taking place are reflected in his paintings.   

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 and highest mountain there is Mount Hermon.  It is the highest mountain in Israel and this may have been the mountain noted in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Hovak Najarian © 2014, edited in 2022

Be well. Do good. Pay attention. Keep learning.

Author: Daniel Rondeau

I am a husband and father and an Episcopal Priest (now retired) in the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego.

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