Ongoing Revelation Through Art
Text by Madeleine Beard
Looking at the Transfiguration in art from the 12th century to the present is a demonstration of the ongoing revelation through art. These artists work in a variety of media and their shows their use of “the intuitive inner eye: The eye of contemplation; the eye of the soul.” (Alex Grey quoted by Daniel Mirante, Alex Grey and Sacred Anatomy)
From the bright, glowing gold of the icon at St. Catherine’s Monastery to the small, intensely colored depiction in the Book of Hours of John of Berry, the artists take us from public to private interpretation of text through art. The St. Catherine’s icon’s communal function contrasts with the intimacy of the painting from the Book of Hours, aimed at a single viewer for private meditation.
The Transfiguration icon of Theophanes the Greek is vividly colored, drawing the viewer into the icon alongside Peter who looks outward and upward.
Giovanni Bellini, an early renaissance artist, painted the Transfiguration in natural light and a realistic landscape. His colors are rich and saturated.
Carl Bloch, a Danish 19th century artist, paints the scene with the disciples in the foreground in vivid color and Moses and Elijah overshadowed by the brilliance of the Transfigured Jesus. Only Jesus faces the viewer and his face is not discernible.
Contemporary artist Solomon Raj paints an Indian Jesus, because “What is needed is not cultural isolation (the existence of many cultures without mutual contact) nor cultural universalism (i.e. the domination of one particular culture without freedom for others) nor uniformity but rather unity through the acknowledgment and interaction of diversified cultural identities and gifts.
“Thus I think everyone, through this sharing of cultural idiom, one will experience the gospel in his own brush like everyone heard the gospel in his own tongue on the Pentecost day.” (P. Solomon Raj, Art, Faith and Culture )
Tim Steele paints Jesus with the face and dress of Abraham Lincoln and God as George Washington. He uses the Transfiguration to comment on America blending of government and religion.
Alex Grey, the last artist in this series, writes, “Though the artist, their art and the viewer are all impermanent, art can provide evidence of contact with the universal creative force beyond time. Art has a function and a mission to interpret the world, to reveal the condition of the soul, to encourage our higher nature and awaken the dormant spiritual faculties within every individual.” Grey’s Transfiguration consists of the figure of Christ alone, no disciples, Moses or Elijah. The figure is both enveloped in light and radiating. Grey’s description of the mission of art applies to all these artists. They all interpret the text of the Gospel to their time and place. As they interpret, they reveal and participate in the ongoing quest for understanding and transformation.
Here are links to images of the Transfiguration painted throughout history:
– The Transfiguration, from the Twelve Feasts on an iconostasis beam and dating to the 12th century
late 14th century
late 20th century
On View: The Transfiguration by P. Solomon Raj. 20th century.
About the Author: Madeleine Beard is a Deacon in the Diocese of Maryland.