Transfiguration, Light, and an Icon
Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green · August 9, 2008
This week as we think about the Transfiguration of our Lord, Frederica has some interesting reflections on a particular icon of the Transfiguration from the apse of St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai. To view the icon, click HERE for a large image, and HERE for a smaller one.
I’m looking at an icon of the Transfiguration—and it’s beautiful. Now, you’ve seen icons of the Transfiguration. You can imagine what it looks like. In the center, there’s an image of Christ transfigured in white robes, light streaking from Him. He is standing in an oval that is blue, it comes to a lighter shade of blue on the edges, and that’s meant to suggest a full-body halo. It’s called a mandorla, these large sort of oval halos. And, of course, on the left and right are Elijah and Moses speaking to Him. In these images they have their hands raised, sort of like philosophers, as they’re talking to Him. And around and beneath Him are scattered James and John and Peter, falling on their faces in awe at this amazing scene that they’re witnessing.
It’s the usual arrangement that we see for an icon of the Transfiguration, but it’s probably the earliest icon of the Transfiguration. This particular image is in the apse of the church of the monastery, the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai. The monastery was built about 550 AD, and this mosaic was probably placed in the apse at that time. So it’s very, very old, and very glorious and very beautiful.
The photo I’m looking at is, I think, the best photo anybody will ever be able to take of this particular icon, because usually there’s a lot of stuff in front of it; it’s behind the iconostasis, and it’s just hard to get a good angle. This photograph was taken immediately after it was restored and cleaned. It was around, let’s see, I found the photograph in a copy of National Geographic from 1964. So it would have been shortly before that, I imagine, that the photo was taken.
It accompanies an article by Kurt Weitzmann, and you might recognize that name, that he collaborated with Leonid Ouspinsky on a very important landmark book about icons. In fact, it was from about the era that Weitzmann and some other scholars began going into Mt. Sinai, and going down to St. Catherine’s and exploring the icons there, that’s about when Westerners became aware of and familiar with the beauty of icons and that whole tradition of Christian painting.
I had heard that there was an article about St. Catherine’s in this 1964 National Geographic. I went online, and I could buy a copy. There are people with stacks of National Geographics and they’re glad to be getting rid of them, so I bought a copy of it and scanned in the photo that accompanies the article, and it’s beautiful. You can find photos of it online but I think this must be the very best. It’s quite awe inspiring.
I wanted to read you a little bit from the article that accompanies it, though. Now this is an apse, which means it’s that curved space, sort of a half shell, and it’s a mosaic, so it’s all these little tiny pieces of glass with a sandwiched bit of paint inside the glass, that’s been attached to the ceiling. So, Kurt Weitzmann is writing about his experience in 1958 when he first went to St. Catherine’s and saw this glorious icon. He writes, “I shall always recall with a sense of horror the day in 1958 when Prof. Paul Underwood of the Byzantine Institute of America climbed with me to the top of our four-story scaffold in the Church of St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, as he cautiously tapped the great mosaic of the Transfiguration that arcs above the altar. It yielded beneath his fingers. ‘The figure of Christ is detached from the wall,’ he said. ‘It could collapse at any time.’
“My heart sank. For fourteen centuries, this priceless artistic legacy from the ancient world had glowed like a vision of Heaven in the wilderness of Moses, but seeping water had finally eroded the mortar behind the figure of Christ, leaving it suspended like a veil. The slightest jar could have reduced it to a rubble of meaningless colored cubes.”
So, they got a team, they worked very hard, they were able to save it, and he goes on: “Working carefully, they opened up fifty-six tiny holes through which they forced mortar to rebind the scene to the wall. In several of the more critical areas, copper pins were inserted to reinforce the mortar. Once the safety of the scene was assured, another veteran of the Hagia Sophia project, Ernest Hawkins, painstakingly removed the grime and varnish that dimmed its glory. Now this magnificent work of art shines with the same splendor as in the age of Justinian.” And it does. It’s a beautiful and glorious image.
As I think about the Transfiguration, I guess one of the main themes is light. Mysteries of light, in fact the science of light is confounding. When you think about how often in the Scriptures we’re told that God is light, and I’ve said before one of my little hobby horses is to remind people that for most of human history, if you said light, people thought of a flame or a fire. There was no such thing as a light bulb. So, light always meant something that should be respected, that was potentially dangerous, that was stronger than you are, and you had to respect it, or else you might end up being hurt. So, the idea of the fear of God made a bit more instinctive sense to people when they heard that analogy of ‘God is Light’.
And, God is life. In a way, light is life. I think I picked up this idea from something written by the Armenian Orthodox writer Vigen Guroian, the ethicist, who said that in some sense it is light that we eat when we eat anything. It is light energy that plants consume in photosynthesis. They turn light into plants. They turn light into squash or watermelon or daisies or anything else that’s plant life- oak trees- it’s all made from consuming light. And when we eat plants, or when we eat animals that eat plants, it’s secondhand, we are eating light. So, it is light energy actually that sustains us.
I was giving a speech once, and I was talking about that, and afterwards a scientist came up to me and he told me that he had seen electron photomicrographs of the molecules of chlorophyll, which is the thing that enables photosynthesis, and of hemoglobin, which transports oxygen throughout the body. He told me that for both chlorophyll and hemoglobin, the molecules have a cross-shaped structure. They are shaped like a cross. He said hemoglobin actually is a complex of four little crosses, four chlorophyll-like subunits arranged in a crosslike pattern, so a cross made up of crosses.
But he said that with hemoglobin, each of the four units has a spot at the center of each of those crosses, and it is an atom or an ion of iron. So, he said the most important element of human blood, this molecule that we depend on to carry oxygen through the body, this most important molecule, hemoglobin, resembles a cross, and that each extension of the cross is marked with an atom of iron.
So he told me that when he saw that, he thought immediately about the cross, the crucifixion, and the three sites where Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed. But he said, “I’ve been thinking about it, and I just don’t know what to make of the fourth mark of iron up at the top of the cross.” And I said, “That’s where Pilate nailed the sign.” So that was kind of amazing to realize, that written in our blood is the sign of the cross, and the sign of a cross that is marked with iron at each of its extensions.
There are wonderful mysteries about light and life, and human blood, and in the blood is the life, as it says in the Old Testament, all of these things working together. What are we supposed to learn from the Transfiguration? Such an unearthly and unfamiliar experience. Well, one of the things I noticed was that there were three guys there, right? There was Peter, James, and John. And both Peter and John wrote letters—there are letters from John and letters from Peter in the New Testament. Both of them refer to what they have seen, as St. John says, “What we have seen, what our eyes have beheld, what we have handled with our hands, being an eyewitness of Christ’s glory.” And St. Peter, as well, says, “We were eyewitnesses of His majesty.”
Here’s that line from St. John I was fumbling, trying to think of: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes, this is the message we have heard from Him and proclaimed to you, that God is Light and in Him is no darkness at all.”
So both of them make references to their experience of encountering the Lord and of seeing Him, of being eyewitnesses of His majesty. But, why were they brought to see it? Why did our Lord reveal His majesty? Well, it may be because what we’re going to become when we’re fully transformed in Christ will resemble that. That is what it’s going to be like. Maybe St. John was reflecting on witnessing the Transfiguration when he writes in his first letter, chapter 3 verse 2: “It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when He appears, we shall be like Him.” And likewise, St. Peter says, through God’s promises we can become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-4). Perhaps both of those men are reflecting on what they saw on Mt. Tabor that day when they saw the Transfiguration.
Cyril of Alexandria, in the fifth century, wrote about this. Why the Transfiguration? Why did they get that revelation? He makes the point that the disciples had probably heard Jesus talking about the resurrection of the body, but had no way to imagine what such a thing could be. Cyril writes, “Even though they had heard that our flesh will rise up again, they did not know how. Now, Christ was transfigured in His own flesh and so gave us the example.”
So that’s where we’re going. We’re all headed for Mt. Tabor. Every time we eat something, we’re eating light. We are already partakers of light. There is light in our very being, and the blood that is transporting oxygen throughout our bodies, enlightening our bodies, is marked by the sign of the cross. These are wonderful things.
Where are we going? There’s that icon in the apse of the monastery of St. Catherine. The glory shining out, the rays, Peter, James and John falling on their faces in awe. It’s a pretty glorious image, so I’m grateful, I’m always grateful for the Feast of the Transfiguration where we get, perhaps, just a glimpse of what this is all about and where we’re going.