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An Interpretation of the Icon of the Transfiguration of the Lord


The icon of the Transfiguration constitutes the key to Orthodox theology on the vision of God. The light which appeared to the Apostles was the expression of the Divine brilliance, of the timeless and uncreated glory, the recognition of the two natures of Christ, the divine and the human. At the same time, it was a prototype, an icon of the transfigured human nature and of the theosis (deification) which is granted by the redemptive work of Christ. The Transfiguration of Christ on mount Tabor is the corresponding event in the New Testament of the event in the Old Testament in which God is revealed to Moses on Mount Horeb. Already from the first Christian centuries we have indications that the Transfiguration of Christ was celebrated in the Church, while from the end of the 6th century of the Christian era the date of this celebration was fixed to be the 6th of August. It is from the same period that we derive the first examples of the iconographic art.

The Light of the transfigured Christ constitutes the main expression of the Hesychastic movement through the theology of the “Hesychastic Fathers” which was recorded in the 14th century. Their leader, St. Gregory Palamas, declared that God is called “Light” not according to his being (ousia), but according to his “energy”, and that this “uncreated” light can be sensed by our senses through prayer and as long as certain presuppositions apply (purity of heart, ceaseless memory of God… etc.). This dogma of the Church resulted in certain iconographic changes in the composition of the icon of the Transfiguration, especially in the rendering of the Glory of Christ. So the icon of the Transfiguration is depicted not only in accordance with the Gospel accounts – it is recorded by all the Evangelists (Matthew 17-­‐1-­‐9, Mark 9: 2-­‐13, and Luke 9:28-­‐36) with the exception of John, – but also in accordance with its spirit. It is because of the dogmatic significance of this event, that the iconographic theme has undergone the least of changes in the course of centuries. This depiction was not only for the theologians but also for the iconographers the pretext for producing extended scholia (commentaries) concerning the way in which that uncreated light had to be depicted with transient material means. This is the point where the theology of the icon meets with hesychastic theology and the vision of the divine and uncreated light. In the icon of the Transfiguration we have the projection of a deliberate antithesis, which is truly amazing to a very high degree. The composition contrasts the motionless Christ who lies above and is engulfed in superb peace and glory, which are derived from him, and bathe with divine splendor the figures of Moses and Elijah, who stand bending towards the Lord and form a perfect circle of what lies beyond the veil, and the vivid dynamism of the Apostles who lie below – being still completely human – and are overthrown and utterly toppled by the impact of the Revelation.

The transfigured Christ appears high up in the middle of the icon, above the middle peak of Mount Tabor of Galilee. He blesses with one of his hands, while the other holds a folded scroll, where his Law is written. He is dressed with a white garment and he is flooded with light inside his hanging Glory – since the light is the first property of God (Ps. 27:1, Is. 60:19-­‐20 and 42:6) – as the miracle of his revelatory epiphany proclaims. Mark describes the scene as follows: “and he was transfigured before them, and his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them” (9:2-­‐3).

The uncreated light is depicted in the icon by symbolic schematizations and colors with which Christ is vested. The two homocentric circles symbolize the presence of the other two persons of the Holy Trinity, a wholeness of the spheres of the created universe. The circle is iconographically the most perfect shape and symbolizes perpetual endurance, the divine. Christ – the second person of the Holy Trinity – at the moment of His Transfiguration is circumscribed by the following three symbols of light: the rays which form a ellipsoid square, the golden lines (chrysography), the luminous crown (halo) around his head and the white vestments. The rays which escape from his body indicate the sun, the golden lines the transmission of the divine life, the halo recalls the sun’s sphere, a symbol of the sacred and of the spiritual energy which radiates, and the whiteness of the vestments purity and incorruptibility. Theologically, this light of Tabor makes the icon an iconographic proof of divine existence.

“The brilliance which characterizes Christ and his garments which “white like the light” (Matth. 17: 2) which were glistening, sparkled and reflected flashes of divine splendor is what is stressed in all the descriptions of the Apostles. The white as symbol of light has the attribute of spreading as it drives through space. As such it represents what is timeless. It denotes the innocence of the soul, purity and sanctity of life, joy, virginity, faith and glory. Related references are also made in the Holy Scripture: ”wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (Ps. 50:9). White garments are put on by the newly baptized as an indication of their birth into the true life. The white becomes the color of Revelation, of Epiphany, of Grace. As St. John says, “God is Light ” (I John, 1:5).

Christ is depicted with a luminous crown that bears the cross and on its antennas the letters «Ο Ω Ν» which means “He who Is, or He who is Present.” This is a reminder that He is the authentic “icon” and co-­‐existing (homoousios) with the Father. God is revealed to Moses on Mount Horeb, saying “I am He who Is” (Εxod. 3:14). It is exactly this that is stamped upon the halo of Christ, indicating that He is co-­‐existing with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The shape of the cross within the halo indicates the event of redemption through the Cross.

Being in His divine Glory, Christ offers a blessing having His face turned towards the observer – to whom it is addressed anyway. The gesture of blessing with the two fingers raised (the index and the medial) and the three others united refer to his two natures, the divine and the human, and respectively to the three persons of the Holy Trinity. In his descent from mount Tabor Christ blesses in a different way. He touches the thumb with the ring finger and he has the other three fingers raised. In this way he indicates again the two natures and the three hypostases (persons), while at the same time the fingers form in their present position the Greek monogram IC XC (=Jesus Christ), which is inscribed as a title on all the Orthodox icons of Christ, even in Russia. In the “three peaks composition,” as the scene is described by Dionysios of Fourna, Christ is paneled together with the two standing figures of the Prophet Elijah on the left and of Moses holding the tablets of the Law of God on the right. These two figures are presented as prototypes of the Apostles, because God has appeared to both of them; to Elijah on Mount Carmel and to Moses on mount Sinai. Moreover, in the Christian tradition, the mountain is a place where heaven meets the earth, and ascent to a mountain has a metaphorical meaning, which refers to an ascent of the stages of sanctity. The two Prophets – from among the greatest figures of the Old Testament – appear to have a conversation with Christ: “and behold two men talked with Him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His exodus which He was going to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Luke, 9:30-­‐31).

“Christ appears with the brilliance of His divine glory in order to prepare and strengthen his disciples spiritually as they were going to be drawn into the temptation of the hard ordeal of the cross. Moses and Elijah are presented in a more human form than the Savior, and they symbolize respectively the Law of the Old Testament and the Prophets. They also symbolize the dead (Moses) and the living (Elijah, who was transposed to heaven from the earth on a fiery chariot). Christ reminds them that He is the one who brought together the Law of Moses with the Old Testament Oracles of the Prophets – which are represented here by Elijah – and denotes His superiority over these Scriptures through the witness of the Father, “This is my Son…”

In contrast to the two Prophets who stand motionless, the three Apostles below the feet of Christ, being terrified by what happens, are depicted fallen. Blinded by the divine appearance, the divine energy, they are depicted in positions of intense astonishment and being possessed by great agitation and disturbance, as Matthew reports in his account: “When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were filled with fear” (17:6). In the Holy Scripture we have one more example where man is unable to behold at the divine presence: this is the face of Moses which radiated with divine light after he came down from Sinai, so that the people could not look at him (Exodus, 34, 27-­37).

The energy of light of the divine nature of Christ transforms into light the Apostles who have lost every possible human balance. Indeed, the Apostles Peter, James and John are chosen for their liveliness as “eyewitnesses of His majesty … being with Him on the holy mountain” (II Pet. 1:16-­‐18). The masterly way in which the positions of the Apostles are depicted with their terrified expressions, creates a dramatic impression compared to the calm majesty of the “timeless” stance of the figures which are depicted on the upper part of the scene. If motionlessness expresses the peace of God and the supernatural life, mobility by contrast bears witness to imperfection of spiritual life, i.e., to humanity’s sinful condition. Besides, the same sense of mobility and agitation belongs to the earthly world, the lower realm and not the heavenly state of affairs.

The hymns which are sung on the 6th of August, the day of the celebration of the Transfiguration, stress the divine glory manifested to the Apostles in accordance with the ability and the degree of receptivity which each of them exhibits. Their postures symbolize the different ways of response to divine revelation that human beings exhibit. So, John, the youngest of them, in the middle, and James on the right with the green vesture are thrown down on the ground, holding their face as they are unable to gaze at the divine radiance, while Peter on the left, being older, holds his face with his left hand, but it is turned upwards. At the same time this depiction preserves the respect of the symbolism of the ages.

“The “vision of God” was regarded by the faithful Jews and Christians as the highest experience and virtue that a human being might acquire: “Show Yourself”, said Moses to God (Exod. 33:18). This experience, however, appears to be something unachievable: “No one has ever seen God,” John writes in his Gospel (John, 1:18). Here at Tabor the three disciples become the irrefutable witnesses of a momentary manifestation of the divine glory: “We have seen his glory” (John 1:14). The word was not accidental: they were present (according to the idiomelon of the Vespers of the Feast) at that brilliant event, “so that by seeing the wonders of Jesus “they might not be dismayed by his passions” later on at the crucifixion. Moreover, another purpose of the Transfiguration of Christ was to serve as the foretelling of the Resurrection.

St. Gregory Palamas says this about the three disciples who were witnesses to the scene: “So, neither that light was sensible (created), nor was it simply seen by sensible (created) eyes, but they were transformed by the power of the divine Spirit” (Migne P.G. 151, 433Β). And further on, he says again: He who encounters the divine light, encounters the mystery of God. This is the crossing of the threshold, the “hypostatic beauty”, the divine Initiator (Mystagogue), the Holy Spirit. This is why St. Basil the Great said that the light which radiated at the Transfiguration of Christ was the prelude of His glory which will appear at His Second Coming.

When Peter saw Christ in full glory and the two Prophets standing beside him, he proposed: “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, and one for Moses and one for Elijah,” and as he said this, “a cloud came and overshadowed them…and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him” (Luke 9:33-­‐35). This reveals that the Father is “in the voice” and the Holy Spirit “in the cloud.” The Father bears witness to the genealogy of Jesus, so that his disciples may later understand that his suffering was willful. “Now is the Son of man glorified, and in him God is glorified” (John 13:31). At the same time the Transfiguration of the Savior who “wears the light as a garment” reveals the person of Christ, the beloved and transcendent Son, who possesses the same glory with the Father. It is also a reminder of the fact that man is made “according to the image of God.”

The icon of the iconographer of the Dodekaortion (the icons of the twelve major Feasts) of the Monastery of Dionysiou (on the Holy Mountain) is a unique iconographic variation of the theme of the Transfiguration of the Savior. Following exactly the Gospel accounts, the iconographer includes in his composition, besides the central theme, the scenes of the ascent and descent to Mount Tabor. On the left side we see Christ having his head turned towards the three disciples and his left hand raised in a gesture of addressing them, while on his right hand he holds the divine Law. It seems that he is preparing his disciples for the experience which they will acquire. His purpose is not to astonish them with his Transfiguration, but to reveal to them his divine glory. After the heavenly vision they are depicted descending from the other side of the mount. The unsettled disciples turn their glance to their Lord who reassures them by blessing them. At the same time he tells them: “Tell no one of the vision, until the Son of man is raised from the dead” (Matth. 17:9).

This variation is employed especially on murals, but it also appears on portable icons.

This tradition of adding several secondary incidents around the central theme is purely Byzantine and goes back to the iconography of Byzantium. Its deeper meaning is connected with the thought that on every “divine” manifestation (theophany) – “icon” – the abiding eternal present is revealed, and this allows the possibility of presenting on an “iconographic” surface – an icon – a sequence of related events.

In the past, every iconographer began his “divine art” with the icon of the Transfiguration. Here the tradition believed that the scene is depicted not with the colors of the artist, but with the very light of Tabor. The guiding presence of the Holy Spirit is expressed in the dazzling luminosity of the whole composition, and removes any other possible source of light being involved.

The message that this icon communicates to the faithful is that, since through baptism they have become participants in the mystery of the Resurrection (which is prefigured in the Transfiguration), they are called now to be constantly transfigured more and more by the grace of the Lord (II Cor. 3:18).

Translated by Fr.George Dion.Dragas

(The Forerunner, June-July-August 2012, Volume 10, Issue 6,7,8)

(Taken from