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The Transfiguration, East and West

This is another icon attributed to Theophanes, a magnificent icon of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36). Earlier in this talk I said that the basic idea that justified the use, and especially the veneration, of religious imagery was the deification of the flesh, the fact that in the Person of Jesus, human flesh had entered into union with God. Here is an icon of the Ascension, the moment when Christ's human body entered Heaven, another icon attributed to Rublev. 

To quote the one of the troparia (hymn verses) sung on the Feast of the Ascension:

'Lord, You took human nature upon Your shoulders like a lost sheep. You carried it back to Your Father by Your Ascension.'

Another Transfiguration, this one a mosaic from St Catherine's monastery in Munt Sinai, one of the few places that host a collection of religious images from the pre-iconoclastic period.

The Transfiguration on Mount Thabor is the moment when the union of the divine and human, the glory to which all humanity is called, was revealed to the three chosen disciples, Peter, James and John. It is what Moses could not see. To quote one of the troparia for the Feast of the Transfiguration:

'He Who once spoke through symbols to Moses on Mount Sinai saying 'I am He Who is' was transfigured today upon Mount Thabor before the disciples; and in His own Person, He showed them the nature of Man, arrayed in the original beauty of the image.'

An example from the monastic caves in Cappadocia (in modern Turkey).

I think, and indeed I rather hope, that after what I've shown you of the earlier iconographic tradition of the Eastern Church, this, by Raphael in the sixteenth century, might come as a shock. Here is the whole painting. 

The lower scene shows the healing of the boy possessed by a demon, an event that follows immediately after Luke's account of the Transfiguration. 

The obvious difference is that the Raphael is situated in an illusion of 'real space' in three dimensions. The icon painting is either flat 

or it uses a multiplicity of perspective point to break up the impression of an illusory space.

There is a certain irony here. The discovery of the technique needed to create an illusion of real space was part of the whole process that we call 'the Renaissance'. The initial impetus for the Renaissance was the rediscovery of classical art and culture. It might be better to say the discovery of classical art and culture. I said earlier that it had been the East - the 'Orthodox world' - and not the West - the 'Roman Catholic' world - that had been the continuation of the classical tradition. In the last days of the Roman Empire, before it fell to Islam in the middle of the fifteenth century, there was a massive transfer of people and ideas, mainly to Italy, and this was a major motor force for the 'Italian Renaissance'.

Continuing our theme of the Transfiguration, this is a painting by the thirteenth/fourteenth century Italian painter Duccio di Buoninsegna. It could almost be an Orthodox icon, but already we can see an aspiration towards greater realism, towards a unified three dimensional space.

The Transfiguration is less common as a theme in Western art than in the Eastern tradition but here is an early example from the twelfth century, the period often called rather perversely considering the distance that separates it from Roman classicism, 'Romanesque'. 

It is an example of the glory of Western art as it had evolved free of the Eastern classical influence.

This is Fra Angelico from the fifteenth century, soon after the period of Andrei Rublev and Theophanes. The painting is still bound to two dimensions but the rounded, sculptural character of the figures and their clothes recalls the Eastern classical style as it continued in Constantinople particularly visible in this carved ivory from the 6th century (therefore also prior to the iconoclastic period)

This is Bellini at the end of the fifteenth century. Already he is almost completely free of the Eastern model and his figures move in a fully developed illusion of three dimensional space. 

A further development. Francesco Zuccarelli in the eighteenth century.

In compiling this little anthology of transfiguration paintings I should acknowledge my debt to the website   which gives many other interesting examples. 

I have talked about the change that took place in the nature of the icon from the seventeenth century through to the twentieth with the introduction - mandated by the Church - of the 'Italianate' style. Here is an early nineteenth century example from the painter's town, Palekh:

Perhaps not so far so distant from the traditional icon as I have led you to expect.