Art and the Church
The Transfiguration by Theophanes the Greek
Word and Image Bible Study – Mark 9:1-13 and The Transfiguration by Theophanes the Greek
Target group For small groups or personal study
This icon featured in this study is by one of the greatest masters of the icon, Theophanes the Greek. During the late 14th and early 15th centuries Theophanes worked in various cities in the Byzantine Empire before moving to Nizhny Novgorod, and finally to Moscow.
Icons in the Orthodox tradition are considered an important part of the life of the church, holding much the same position as a sermon might. We in the Western church are taught to understand the purpose of a sermon: It is intended to teach truth through hearing and lead thence to worship. In a similar way the Eastern Church understands an icon to teach truth through seeing and lead thence to worship. Because of this high calling within the church community, icon painters—or writers as they are sometimes called—are kept to a stricter rule than creators of religious images in the West. Where in the West images may be more likely to flow from individual fancy or interpretation, images in the Orthodox tradition are expected to proceed from theological truth. Some might criticize as lack of imagination the resulting formal repetition among icons, but the unmistakable advantage is a consistent theological message closely tied to the biblical text.
Aim The Aim of this study is to encourage personal and theological meditation on the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ, using both the word of Scripture and a painted icon. The Transfiguration of Christ is recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels and undoubtedly the icon will rely on all of these. While it would be enriching to look at all three accounts, this study shall focus on the account provided in the Gospel of Mark.
Structure First, you are asked to read and reflect upon the text in Mark 9:1-13. Then, having discussed the written word through the basic questions below, you should spend time meditating on the icon with the text in hand, moving back and forth between the two. The questions that follow this stage will seek to further open up the visual language of the icon and lead—it is hoped—to a deeper understanding of this significant event in the life of our Lord. Commentary written in blue following each of the questions should be read only after personal consideration and/or group discussion. In a group study it will be helpful for the leader to have read Mark, chapters 8 and 9 for the context of the passage.
Scripture reading Mark 9:1-13.
1. Simply and chronologically list the events of this narrative.
2. What visual details do you observe within the text?
The Transfiguration Project the icon onto a large screen, display on a computer or high resolution television screen, or find a reproduction in a book. Take some time to meditate on the image in silence. Do not discuss it immediately. What do you observe? What elements of the icon are the most striking to you?
1. Moving from written word to image, the artist will necessarily operate according to the strengths and limitations of the visual medium. Using the list in question 1 as a help, what narrative details has the artist included in the painting? Which seem to be missing?
2. What visual details first struck you in the painting? How do they match with what you observed in the Scripture? We’ll look at the visual language more methodically now. What do you understand from the painting through the artist’s use of:
a. Colour? Light and dark?
White Probably one of the first details noticed both in the reading and in the painting was Jesus’ white robe. White is by virtue of its brightness in the painting the dominant colour. As an artistic ‘problem’ the use of white has been handled very well: Even the gold background seems to fade before the beautiful white of Christ’s garments, the garments melding together through the white with the glory of the Father (assumedly) in which he stands. All three gospel accounts mention the luminous white of his clothes but Mark brings out a particular aspect of the whiteness: cleanness ‘as no one on earth could bleach’ (v.3), a detail recalling a Messianic prophecy in Malachi 3:2. It is believed that Mark’s gospel account is derived from the apostle Peter. Why do you think Peter would have been struck by the cleanness of Jesus’ clothes?
Gold is not a colour seen in abundance in the ‘real’ world but here the sky is completely gold. In icons gold is often used to suggest the eternal heavenly realm, probably by virtue of its incorruptibility. Is the use of gold, then, a liberty wrongly taken by the artist? We know that the Transfiguration was a historical event and yet this scene even in Scripture takes on a supernatural quality. Were the disciples seeing into the eternal present? The icon writer certainly thinks so.
Breaking through the gold is a pale blue colour which as the colour of the sky is also a heavenly colour. Besides the two upper insets with angels (perhaps summoning Moses and Elijah to this meeting with Jesus) there is the blue swirling glory behind Jesus. The circular shape of this mandorla signifies in Orthodox art eternity and the descent of heaven to earth. Some suggest this to be the cloud of our passage. The mandorla and the geometric (star-like) ‘radiance’ behind Jesus seem to simultaneously emanate from him and surround him. Are we looking at the unity of the Godhead in which Jesus stands?
Earth colours The disciples and the mountain are treated in earthy colours, greens and browns. Despite the supernatural nature of the scene Theophanes wants us to remember that the Transfiguration is truly happening on earth. The white and heavenly blue which is scattered over many of the surfaces of the mountain and men indicate that eternal heaven has come down to this place at this specific time. Through the blue lines emanating from Jesus to his friends’ eyes we understand that heaven is being revealed to them.
Black/darkness In contrast to the whites and gold there is an underlying darkness. The small fissures in the side of the mountain showing blackness beneath give an ominous sense. Where does this come from? A hint is found in the two darker insets of the disciples following Jesus up and down the mountain. Both these insets also seem to take place inside a mountain, as if the scene on Mount Tabor entailed stepping out of a dark dungeon.
b. The posture and gesture of the figures?
Elijah we are told is the forerunner of the Messiah and here he humbly gestures towards Jesus. Moses on the right holds a book, undoubtedly the book of the Old Testament Law. He looks at Jesus and gestures towards the book. What is written there obviously concerns Jesus. Note that the feet of Moses are crossed and that Elijah’s arms are also crossed, which may point to the crucifixion. Both men bow towards Jesus.
The three disciples are in various states of disarray. They are bent over and seem almost to be falling down the mountain. Peter on the left is gesturing towards Jesus (‘Let us build three tents.’). John, falling head-first, is perplexed at what is happening. James, either asleep (as in Matthew’s Gospel) or afraid (Mark), covers his eyes. There is a real sense of powerlessness in all three of the disciples. But they are not just weak; they are literally ‘fallen’ human beings. The two lower insets show the three following Jesus with reluctance or fear. On the left they gesture back towards the valley. A reading of Mark 8 will remind us that in that valley, after Peter’s great confession of Jesus as the Christ, Jesus began to speak plainly about his death (8: 31) and Peter had rebuked him. Death had not been anticipated when he began to follow Christ. In the right inset we can see that the disciples are again reluctant to follow Jesus. In our passage the Lord had again spoken of his death and resurrection and they were naturally fearful, ‘questioning what this rising from the dead should mean’ (v.9).
In contrast to the disciples the figure of Jesus is stately and serene. Despite the reactions to him all around he looks neither at the disciples nor at Elijah and Moses. Instead he looks out at us, the beholders. In one hand he holds a scroll, a symbol of his regal position or perhaps a reminder that only the Lamb of God is worthy to open the scroll (Revelation 5). His other hand is raised in a traditionally symbolic gesture of blessing, while the two upright fingers also refer to his two natures (divine and human) and the three touching fingers in the middle to the Trinity .
c. The visual structure?
The layout of the icon has a number of striking features. A general observation is the contrast between the order around the transfigured Jesus and the chaos of the disciples scattered across the bottom, curves and protruding arms and legs every which way. This almost geometric order around Jesus is not however static but dynamic: he is surrounded by the most beautiful, glorious shapes and rhythms. Notice the fineness and precision of the ‘clean’ lines of his robe.
In every way the figure of Jesus stands out as most important. Besides his exact centering at the top of the icon, he also appears at the apex of a triangle formed by the rays travelling to the eyes of Peter and James. The disciples are relegated to the lower third of the painting but they are not just frightened observers. All three are contained in the triangle just mentioned and the three are connected by the rays emanating from their Lord.
3. It may be apparent by now that the narrative sequence of the gospel history has been transformed into theological commentary. Bringing together the above visual clues, how does the icon of the Transfiguration lead to an understanding of:
a. Who Jesus is?
The Transfiguration of Jesus is the high point of Mark’s Gospel. He begins his gospel by declaring it to be ‘the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (1:1). On Mount Tabor, just six days after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, God the Father declares audibly to the three apostles that Jesus is his Son, his beloved.
The icon retells this news with all stops out, in gestural detail, with the use of colour, and in structural language. Moses and Elijah bow towards Jesus. The disciples fall in fear before his beauty and holiness. Jesus is identified with the heavenly glory and from that glory stands radiant, calmly looking out at us. In the gospel text we hear the voice from the cloud saying, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him’ (8). And in the icon we are reminded: ‘This is God’s Son. Listen to him.’
b. The human condition and the world
By the use of the two lower insets we are reminded that the Transfiguration has a context in the darkness of the world. Through the insets we are asked to remember the valley from which Jesus has brought his disciples, with its confusion, blindness, religious hypocrisy and demonic resistance to the deep purposes of God. And we are reminded that there is another deeper valley ahead, full of confusion, weakness, fear, demonic forces and, finally, suffering and death for the Son of God. Notice the black clothes worn by the Saviour on this road of suffering.
c. The mercy of God
Moses’ holding of the Law is reminding Jesus of the Law’s just requirements regarding the expiation of sin. Who will bear the penalty? Mark does not tell us what Moses and Elijah were saying to him on the holy mountain (though Luke does, Luke 9:31) but Jesus had already begun to speak of his death in Jerusalem and he will continue to speak of it.
Despite their frailty and resistance it appears that Jesus has thrown in his lot with sinful human beings. By formal and literal devices the icon writer makes clear that the three disciples are bound to him and are under his care. Moreover, by Christ’s gaze towards us we too are welcomed by him.
d. The Kingdom of God
That the Kingdom of God has come to earth in Christ is the enduring message of the icon. This is the incredibly good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God that Mark promised us at the start of his gospel. Or we can think this a beautiful fiction.
These reactions can be the same with the written word. Like the disciples we’re perhaps more comfortable in the valley but the apostle Peter emphasizes its truth and importance:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honour and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18 ESV)
And so we are brought back to this scene and asked to contemplate it: heaven’s eternal sky, the glory of God, the beauty and cleanness of Christ, his mercy towards his frail friends and his mercy to us.
Sometimes like Peter we try to build small kingdoms for Christ, tents that will shelter our idea of him. The icon comes as a healthy corrective, reminding us that the Lord is the Lord and that he carries us, not we him. He will accomplish his Kingdom work in us and in the world. In this beautiful icon by Theophanes the Greek we are witnessing a powerful expression of heaven’s gracious descent into our sinful world.
Four final questions
1. If this icon is a sort of sermon, is Theophanes successful in teaching the Bible truthfully?
2. What would you say is the artist’s main point or thesis statement for the icon, if there were one?
3. Theology should always end in doxology. Do you find the icon leads to worship of Christ?
4. For future thought or discussion: meditate on the place of seeing and hearing in the Christian faith.
A very helpful book on the theology of icons is The Meaning of Icons, L. Ouspensky,V. Lossky, Crestwood, NY: St.Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999.
The image Theophanes the Greek, Icon of the Transfiguration, early 15th century, 184 x 134 cm, tempera on wood, located in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
This study is prepared by Irena Tippett. Irena has a Master's degree in Art History from the University of Toronto but it was during studies at Regent College that she discovered the beauty of her field in relation to her faith.