The Centrality of the Transfiguration in Iconography
Icons and the Uncreated Light
Thou, O Christ, wast transfigured, and hast made the nature that had grown dark in Adam to shine again like lightening, transforming it into the glory and splendor of Thine own divinity. – Hymn, Feast of Transfiguration
For several months I have been studying, preparing, and painting the icon of the Transfiguration. It is a daunting icon that stretches my skill set and challenges everything I thought I knew about iconography. Anecdotal tradition states that the Icon of the Transfiguration was the first icon painted by the aspiring iconography student; if this is true, the iconographers of old were far braver than I, and that first icon likely weeded out those who were not serious about their vocation. Whether the practice was actually followed however, doesn’t alter the fact that the Transfiguration is central to the practice of iconography. It is the uncreated light of God, as witnessed on Mt. Tabor, that animates the icon, making it a dynamic, and arresting beauty that reveals the Kindgom of God made manifest.
The entire process of painting an icon is an unfolding of revelation: to reveal the transfiguration of nature and humanity, the movement from darkness to Light. Every icon begins with the first day of creation, “Let there be light.” Unlike most Western art that begins with shadow, and then adds light, icons begin with light, and that light is intended to shine through each layer of paint, giving the image the appearance of being lighted from within.
The Icon, Transfiguration, and Union
The icon is a representation of the transfiguration of a man filled with the Holy Spirit. The Transfiguration is primarily about union; man’s union with God, the union of the Old Covenant with the New, and the dead with the living. Christ stands as a vortex of sorts within the Transfiguration Icon. He is the essential gravity that pulls everything to Himself; Moses and Elijah, representing the Old Testament, the Law, and the Prophets are drawn through Christ and united with the Apostles. Moses, who stands as a representative for the dead is united with the living Apostles through Christ, and Elijah stands a witness of Christ’s future bodily Resurrection, and our own, thus uniting the dead with the Resurrected in Christ. All comes to unity in the person of Christ, and the Transfiguration is a vivid image of that union.
Thus, unity is also the primary task of the iconographer. Through prayerful, and contemplative work, the iconographer creates a yoke of sorts, symbolically uniting this world with the Other, the earthly kingdom with the Heavenly. The iconographer presents in color and light the reality of the ever-present Kingdom of God. The icon reminds men that they have already been given the inheritance promised to Christ, to be co-heirs of His kingdom. The icon affirms the objective for all of creation, which is Transfiguration, to be re-made in God’s likeness and to be a partaker of His divine and uncreated energies.
“Christ’s transfiguration affirms the union of the divine and human natures in Christ, the communion of the saints, the possible theosis of the human person. The miracle of the Transfiguration isn’t that God shines with light brighter than the sun, but that man shines with this same divine light (Hart, Aidan).”
It is this divine and uncreated light of the Transfiguration that the iconographer seeks to present in the icon, to see what is already there by grace. God’s uncreated light shines through the entire creation, we are often just too preoccupied with the material world to see it. Iconographer Aiden Hart once wrote, “all the world is a burning bush”; but we must have eyes to see.
All the World is a Burning Bush
We can have these God encounters everyday if we only open our eyes through prayer and contemplation; icons can help that process of opening. In the book of Acts we read, “Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again.” Our spiritual eyes are covered with scales, and we often walk around as if blind; may God allow those scales to fall that our eyes may be open and able to see.
When our spiritual eyes are opened, when we have ascended Mt. Tabor with God’s help, we too shall see the uncreated light shining in the darkness and all the world will become a burning bush for us. This change in vision is aptly illustrated when the icon of the Transfiguration is compared with the icon of Pentecost. When Peter, James and John beheld the Lord transfigured, they were hardly able to bear it and are shown falling face down in order to shield their eyes. At Pentecost however, not only are they able to behold God’s glory, they are able to receive this glory into themselves, and they too shine with light brighter than the sun.
The Transfiguration in the Icon
“Icons differ from other art forms in that they do not represent temporal portraits, but rather show transfigured states of being (Lossky).” Icons transmit two realities, the reality of God and of the world. Secular art, and often non-iconic forms of sacred art, seek to represent the physical beauty of this world; icons however, seek to transmit the beauty of the Spiritual world, the transfigured world. In icons, the future and transfigured state of creation is shown as if it has already been achieved; and certainly it has been, if only we have the eyes to see.
As God lives outside of time, the eschaton (the fulfillment of all things) is already a reality. It is not without significance that just prior to the Transfiguration of Christ, Jesus said to His disciples: “I tell you the truth, some who stand here will not taste death unit they see the Kingdom of God.” Peter, James, and John certainly witnessed the Kingdom of God made manifest when they saw the Transfigured Christ, and throughout history, many have witnessed the uncreated light in the lives of the saints. Perhaps there are some who are reading this who will not taste death until they see the Kingdom of God manifest; only God knows. To God be the glory! Amen.