In the 10th episode of the “Orthodox Icons Explained” series, Fr. John explains the icon of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ is celebrated each year on August 6. The feast commemorates the transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor.
Watch here the entire “Orthodox Icons Explained” series.
Fr. Ioan Bizau is a senior lecturer of Iconography and Christian Art at the Faculty of Orthodox Theology in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
Location: Diocesan Museum of the Orthodox Metropolis of Cluj (Muzeul Mitropoliei Clujului)
Camera: Darius Echim
Table of contents:
00:00 ♫ Troparion of the Transfiguration of Christ in Greek ♫
00:54 Biblical references
07:06 ♫ Troparion of the Transfiguration, St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral’s choir led by Fr. Gregory Ealy, Minneapolis, 2019 ♫
07:42 The theology of the Holy Fathers
08:31 The troparion
09:26 St. Gregory Palamas and the mystery of the Taboric Light
10:15 ♫ Kontakion of the Transfiguration, Male choir of the Minsk Theological Seminary ♫
11:00 St. Gregory Palamas and the super bright light of the divinity
12:37 A traditional Transylvanian icon
13:40 The three images
15:10 ♫ Troparion of the Transfiguration of Christ, Putna Monastery, Romania, 2020 ♫
16:03 The upper plan: the landscape
16:54 The Prophet Moses and the Prophet Elijah
18:20 The mandorla [almond-shaped aureola]
18:50 A geometric figure – symbol of the cloud
20:04 A Theophany
21:29 ♫ Troparion of the Transfiguration of Christ, St. Cosmas Ecclesiastical Music School – Akkar, Lebanon ♫
22:41 The lower plan
23:50 The small traditional Romanian icon
24:29 Transfiguration concerns us as well
26:09 Transfiguration and the pollution of the surrounding nature
27:40 ♫ Troparion of the Transfiguration, Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral, Cluj, Romania ♫
At the beginning I would like us to remember that the event that Eastern Christianity celebrates each year on August 6th is the brightest of the moments, of the events of the earthly life of our Savior Jesus Christ. Sure, we’re talking about the Transfiguration. The event is described, narrated in the first three Gospels, as they are called – the synoptic gospels or pairs, that is, Matthew, Mark and Luke. They make us witnesses, make us partakers of what happened on Mount Tabor in front of the three disciples: Peter, Jacob and John, being present there even two of the important witnesses of the Old Testament, namely Moses the seer of God and the great prophet Elijah.
I was saying that the Gospels describe the event we are celebrating on August 6th, and I would like to use the Gospel of Luke more, the 9th chapter. First we will note that the evangelist states the following: Lord Jesus Christ went up to Tabor with Peter, James, and John to pray. This statement of the evangelist is very important and significant. Why were there 3 of them? This is because according to an Old Testament legal principle, the truth must be attested through two or three witnesses. We also have the two, the representatives of the Old Testament, i.e. the representative of the Law – Moses and the representative of the prophets, the two fundamental institutions of the Old Testament religious life, and we have the three disciples. This is how the important Old Testament legal principle is fulfilled, according to which, as I was saying, the truth must be attested, it must be proved by the presence, by the direct testimony of two or three witnesses. And it goes on, this time I take the passage from the Gospel of Luke in chapter 9, from the beginning: “And as He was praying, the appearance of his face was altered”, that is, it received a new appearance, “and his clothing became dazzling white” [Luke 9:29]. Matthew says “his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light”. We see that evangelists use things from ordinary life, from the reality of the seen world, and when they talk about the radiance of divine glory they refer to the pure white of light or as the evangelist Mark says to the white of snow. He says that “his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them”. I also take another passage from the evangelist Luke: “And, behold, there talked with him two men, which were Moses and Elias: Who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem. But Peter and they that were with him were heavy with sleep: and when they were awake, they saw his glory, and the two men that stood with him.” [Luke 9:30-32] And finally, the last passage, this time from the Gospel of Luke, I said from the 9th chapter: it is about the moment when Peter expresses his state of happiness. “While he thus spake, there came a cloud, and overshadowed them: and they feared as they entered into the cloud. And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him.” In the version of Matthew it is like this: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” [Matthew 17:5].
Surely in this description of the brightest event in the earthly life of our Lord Jesus Christ, we have the final part of it in which we hear the confession of St. Matthew the Evangelist, who tells us: “And when the disciples heard it,” the heavenly voice, the voice of the eternal Father of His Incarnate Son, “they fell on their face, and were sore afraid”, as we would say today, they were seized by sacred fear. “And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid” [Matthew 17:7].
According to the Holy Fathers, witnesses of tradition, on Tabor, the Lord Jesus Christ revealed His glory, the eternal glory of His divinity, which (as He himself says at one point in the Gospel) He had before the world began, from the heavenly Father, in the sense that He is consubstantial with the Father. Also, the Fathers of the Church but also the hymns of the Feast and especially the Troparion that summarizes the event in a few words tell us that on Tabor the Lord Jesus Christ showed His glory according to the capacity of the disciples to comprehend. The troparion says, “revealing Your glory to Your disciples as far as they could bear it.” From here we learn that man, the human being, in his senses, in his ability to comprehend the world around him, has some limits: both sight and hearing and all the senses, and reasoning, have their limits. The glory of God, the endless, inexhaustible divine glory was shown to them as much as they could bear. And the Fathers of the Church also teach us a very important thing, namely that it was not in the person of Christ that a change took place at that moment. But this change took place in the three disciples. They have passed from a physical state to a spiritual state. We learn this from St. Gregory Palamas, who have lived in the 14th century and reflected for a lifetime on the mystery of the Taboric Light, on the mystery of this overwhelming event, as I said, the brightest in the life of the Savior Jesus Christ, when He revealed (as much as possible for the disciples, that is, according to their capacity of understanding) His divine glory through which He is partaker of the fullness of the whole divinity.
St. Gregory Palamas teaches us very beautifully when he says that the super bright light of the divinity has passed through the earthly, human body of Christ, just as a bright light passes through a fine, transparent membrane. At that moment the body of our Lord Jesus Christ was filled with the divine glory that the three apostles saw, comprehended to the extent of human capacity.
As for the illustration or visualization of this event, we have the icons of the Christian East, of all kinds, in the sense that the iconographers, painters were more or less talented, but also in the sense that in terms of their comprehending or rather their theological understanding of the event we are celebrating on August 6, they approached, they became familiar with one or another of the aspects of the overwhelming event that took place on Mount Tabor. I brought a traditional Transylvanian icon, painted by an anonymous painter, from the second half of the 18th century. Of course, the paintings were much better in Transylvania than we see in this piece in front of us. This is what we had at hand. During that period, as we know, a real renaissance of liturgical art took place in Transylvania. This took place under the direct influence of a pleiad of painters, artists, first hand artists or modest artists, coming from beyond the Carpathians Mountains to adorn churches and paint icons, icons that ultimately reached the most distant lands of Transylvania. We also have three images, three reproductions, this one is from the Macedonian school, 16th-century, we have this one from the Russian school, I will refer to it more because it is more clearer, it corresponds better to the traditional artistic scheme, and the one above is from Rubliov’s time, of course, also from the Russian school. We put the icon of the Savior Jesus Christ as Teacher in order to balance the panel we made for the visual description of the event we are celebrating on August 6th. Sure, it would have been great, but we did not have at hand a reproduction with the famous mosaic from the 6th century, famous for being of good quality, old and monumental, from the large, main church of the famous monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai [Egypt], one of the oldest, most important images of the Transfiguration, as I said, from the 6th century.
I said that we refer especially to this one because it is even brighter and one could look at it more closely. First of all we will notice the landscape: it is a mountain with three peaks, Mount Tabor. On the central peak, which is a little higher, stands the Lord Jesus Christ clothed in white, as the evangelists describe Him to us. I was mentioning, one of them says “white as light”, another one, Mark, says “white as snow, as no fuller”, that is, the specialist whose occupation is fulling cloth, “as no fuller on earth could whiten them”, he has no techniques, does not have the ability to whiten them so much in order to reach pure white. On the other two peaks of the mountain we can see the witnesses of the Old Testament, that is, the prophet Moses, generally on the right, and the prophet Elijah, generally on the left. There are also cases where the two have their places reversed, but in general Moses is on the right and Elijah is on the left. Often, we recognize Moses because he holds the Tablets of the Law in his hand, it is very clear there, we notice him immediately. We notice that the two, i.e. the representative of the Law and the representative of the Prophets, the two fundamental institutions of Old Testament religious history are slightly inclined towards the Lord Jesus Christ in a gesture of piety, it is also a gesture of communion, we understand that. Therefore, in an Eastern Orthodox church which is well painted from an artistic and theological point of view, all themes and all people converge towards the center, towards the central axis on which our Lord Jesus Christ is visualized. We notice that the body of our Lord Jesus Christ is projected on a circular or slightly elongated, oval mandorla. The mandorla [almond-shaped aureola] is the sign of divine glory. It is those concentric circles colored from blue to dark green that visualize, so to speak, the heavenly world. And most of the time on the surface of the mandorla we see a geometric figure that has 8 angles (two squares), 6 angles or 4 angles. It is a symbol of the cloud that covered the three disciples on Tabor. We know from the Holy Scriptures that the cloud is the sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit, just as at the Baptism of our Lord the sign of His presence was the dove, at Pentecost the sign of His presence were tongues like fire, in this case the invisible presence of the Holy Spirit is visualized by this geometric figure. There is no need to insist on its symbolism. What must be remembered and the icon of the Transfiguration as well as the Troparion as well as the other hymns of the services help us to understand that on Mount Tabor there was a Theophany, that is, a visible manifestation of God. The Son is present in His divine and human person at the same time as the creator Logos incarnate in the fullness of time, the Holy Spirit is present through that geometric symbol, the cloud in the account of the evangelists, and the Father is not visible. The Heavenly Father, the eternal Father of His Son is present through the voice that is heard. The Theophany of Tabor is like that of Jordan, we remember that even there the voice of the Heavenly Father is heard: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” or “in whom is my delight, my fulfillment”. However, both the evangelists insist on what the voice says: “listen to Him”.
So this is how the upper plan unfolds before our eyes, sure, if we pay attention to its details. We notice that the Savior Jesus Christ has a halo around His head and also the two witnesses of the Old Testament, namely the representative of the Law – Moses and the representative of the Prophets – Elijah.
We go to the lower plan, at the foot of the mountain, on the surface of Tabor are projected the three disciples in the state of ‘sacred thrill’. The evangelist told us, and we probably remember: the disciples were heavy with sleep, and at one point they had the revealing experience of divine glory and were frightened and fell to the ground. Usually the three apostles do not have halos. Sure, they have halos in the traditional icon. We notice from here that the iconographer was a more modest connoisseur of what the theology of the liturgical image means, he also made haloes for the three apostles. This icon is for the iconostasis, it is very small and, look, in this small space, the modest painter, the old painter, in the second half of the 18th century, a more enlightened, a more skilful peasant, who might have been an apprentice to famous masters, managed to illustrate according to his understanding the overwhelming event of Tabor.
It should be remembered and it is important to remember that the Transfiguration, this event, the brightest in the earthly life of our Lord Jesus Christ, concerns us as well. First of all we will remember, and I said at the beginning, that at the moment of the Transfiguration the eternal glory of the Son of God was revealed to the disciples as much as they could bear. This is mentioned in the troparion of the Feast but also in the other hymns of the service of August 6th. We will also remember that according to the evangelical witnesses, the Lord Jesus Christ was talking, He was in dialogue with Moses and Elijah, about His death that He would suffer in Jerusalem. Therefore, the Transfiguration foretells the sacrifice of Golgotha, the fullness of its light, and, of course, the Resurrection.
The fact that in this icon we see the surrounding nature, Mount Tabor, this natural element, an absolutely ordinary element of the surrounding nature, we learn from this that the whole cosmos is destined to be transfigured together with man. And applying this, of course, to our lives, to what is happening in the world today, I am referring first of all to the hellish pollution of the surrounding nature, the Transfiguration is an image that draws our attention to the fact that we are responsible ourselves, we humans, the human community, collectively and individually, with the transfiguration of the whole cosmos, that is, by bringing it to the state of “a new heaven and new earth”, as it was contemplated by the beloved disciple, also present at the event, namely the Evangelist John, in the last book of the New Testament, towards the end of it [chap. 21], the Book of Revelation.
So here are these few points that I have tried to make and through which we tried to understand the mystery that happened on Mount Tabor, that is, the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ.