The Transfiguration is the event when Christ’s two natures are made clearly visible. In front of human witnesses – Christ exchanges his temporal earthly form for his eternal divine form for a moment…
The Transfiguration was not a phenomenon circumscribed in time and space; Christ underwent no change at that moment, even in His human nature – the change occurred in the awareness of the apostles, who for a time received the power to see their Master as He was, resplendent in the eternal light of the Godhead. The light which Christ radiated on Mount Tabor is eternal and is visible through reflection, introspection and the silence of inward prayer – waiting upon God in emptiness and quietness.
The Transfiguration is one of the greatest mysteries of the Christian revelation, and one that is important to icon painters – it gives us permission to attempt to portray the divine light of God – which is in the likeness of Christ. A mystery is something that while it may be revealed for our understanding, we can never understand it exhaustively. It leads us into the depth, and into the darkness of God. The eyes are closed – but they are also opened.
And Christ was transfigured before them (Peter, James and John): and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was as white as the light. …[Peter then expressed how good it was to be there and suggested perhaps they build some sort of altar] … While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I Am well pleased; hear ye him. And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were sore afraid,” (Matt 17:2-7, Mark 9:2-13, Luke 9:28-36)
In the July seminar at Whitecliffe College of Art and Design I exhibited for assessment two paintings. Today I would like to contemplate and discuss the painting of Cosmic Christ Transfigures on Mars.
This egg tempera painting on gesso board is a synthesis of two primary images. The Christ figure is from a byzantine sacred icon of ‘The Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor’ and the landscape is appropriated from a NASA photo taken from their robot ‘Spirit’ as it travels across the terrain of the planet Mars.
Today, August the 6th, is the feast day of The Transfiguration in the Orthodox Church calendar. It is one of their principal feasts, and plays an important role in the Eastern Orthodox faith, as in this event Christ’s two natures are made clearly visible. In front of human witnesses – Christ exchanges his earthly form for his divine form and then returns to his earthly form. ‘According to the doctrine of Hesychasm the light which Christ radiated on Mount Tabor is eternal and is visible through reflection and introspection.’ (Roozemond-Van Ginhoven, p. 25)
Hesychia is the stillness and silence of inward prayer – waiting upon God in emptiness and quietness. Putting aside human thoughts and words. Also the original intention of the word metanoeo (the unfortunate word ‘repent’ is mainly used in English translations).
The gospels spell it out thus:
And Christ was transfigured before them (Peter, James and John): and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was as white as the light. … [Peter then expressed how good it was to be there and naively suggested perhaps they build some sort of altar??! GB] … While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I Am well pleased; hear ye him. And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were sore afraid,” (Matt 17:2-7, Mark 9:2-13, Luke 9:28-36)
In my painting I have deferred from the original byzantine expression, with all the characters involved (see below) in order to focus on the sole figure and eternal moment of Transfiguration as expressed through the image of Christ. I have situated this event upon a landscape in the cosmos which no human eyes have beheld, or is likely to ever behold – in the camera we trust, just as in the enduring Archetype we may also trust. We are missing witnesses from the Transfiguration event, as we also we do not have verifiable witnesses of the planet Mars. The witness has become you, as you contemplate. Whether you trust the account of Mars, or the vision of the Godhead – is up to you.
The Transfiguration was not a phenomenon circumscribed in time and space; Christ underwent no change at that moment, even in His human nature, but change occurred in the awareness of the apostles, who for a time received the power to see their Master as He was, resplendent in the eternal light of the Godhead.’ (Lossky, p. 223)
This cosmic Christ is a fully aware Being – a Human clothed in uncreated Glory – It was Light that the apostles saw – eternal, infinite, existing outside space and time. It is divine and uncreated. Terrifying and unbearable to the apostles, being so foreign to human nature. Only one character within the Judaic-Christian revelations was never ever struck down and blinded by this Light when revealed – and that is the underrated figure of Mary Magdalene – certainly a subject for another painting!
Revealing himself through His creative ‘thought-wills’, God can be known in creatures and by means of creatures, but He can also be known immediately by mystical contemplation, in His uncreated energies which are the splendour of His face. It is thus, in His Godhead, that Christ appeared to the apostles on Mount Tabor, and it is thus that He makes Himself known to the saints who detach themselves from all created things, renouncing all finite knowledge in order to attain to union with God …. We are reminded here of the ecstasy of St. Benedict of Nursia, who saw the whole universe as if it had been gathered together into a beam of the divine light. (Lossky, p. 99)
Dionysius the Areopagite, also spoke of ‘rays of divinity’. He is a fascinating figure from the very early days of Christian revelation, (in either the 1st or 4th century – there is debate about the time he wrote). Dionysius wrote of the creative powers which penetrate throughout the universe, and make themselves known, not through any created being, but by an interior light. His work primarily questions the ability to represent God in a material way. On further reading of his work, one is led to think that images of the Godhead, sacred icons, and other human representations of Divinity must have abounded at the time. Possibly most of these images were destroyed during the iconoclasm?
And when we have received, with immaterial and unflinching mental eyes, the gift of Light, primal and super-primal, of the supremely Divine Father, which manifests to us the most blessed Hierarchies of the Angels in types and symbols, let us then, from it, be elevated to its simple splendour …. For it is not possible that the supremely Divine Ray should otherwise illuminate us, except so far as it is enveloped, for the purpose of instruction, in variegated sacred veils, and arranged naturally and appropriately, for such as we are, by paternal forethought. (Dionysius, Ch.1 Sc. 1)
Surely these ‘rays’ penetrate the entire solar system? And yet they are variegated, veiled – for our safety perhaps. And as we humans make our fledging and clumsy explorations of space – we only learn how little it is that we know for sure. The universe does not shed her veils easily either. But this is actually the essence of it – the Transfiguring Christ and the photo of a Mars Landscape are both mysterious encounters. Heaven intersecting Creation. Positioning this intersection on Mars requires us to blow apart the Heaven and Earth dichotomy we have grown up with, and enables us to swing our brains around differently. Because – up there – is also ‘earth’ or Creation. It requires us to look elsewhere for ‘heaven’ – and not just UP. Heaven is within us? All around, embedded in the fabric of space. Creation is Matter /Elements. Is Heaven is the Space/Energy in between?
What is a mystery? A mystery is something that is ‘revealed for our understanding, but which we can never understand exhaustively.’ It leads us into the depth, and into the darkness of God. ‘The eyes are closed – but they are also opened’ (Ware, p. 15). Bishop Kallistos Ware also refers to a term which helps me to fathom this way of unknowing which he calls ‘thick darkness’ or ‘dazzling darkness.’ I think humanity also fathoms space in the same light (darkness). The plethora of strange worlds and alien creatures we have invented to inhabit the cosmos is a measure of the impenetrability of the universe.
Why is this starting to sound like a sermon? Well, I think the work of the artist is indeed the same as the theologian. We are trying to describe transcendence and find a way to express the mysterious tremendum. Is this also the work of that modern invention – the Contemporary Artist? We heard from two contemporary artists during the seminar whose practise is also one of exploring mystery.
During the seminar, artist and conjuror, Dane Mitchell spoke of his art as a means to ‘invoke some unseen thing; and to ‘illuminate illuminations.’ He talked of ‘mystic states’ and ‘revelation vs. concealment.’ The language of a theologian practising art – surely? But while Mitchell provides the ‘containers’ of the artwork, in the form of glass cases, white rooms or boxes – he employs mystic practitioners to fill them up with ghosts, hauntings, and other unseen presences. He specifies the time and place – but the artwork is ‘activated’ by the rituals of practitioners who have already built gateways to the etheric realm.
Mitchell is not the conjuror, he is merely the means by which the conjuring is revealed. He is not even providing a tunnel, or a path, or a window to this world. But a box. Mitchell encapsulates everything in containment, creating well defined boundaries in order to confine. Borders provide the security of a spatial fastening to the tangible – is it only within the cognizant spatial borders of our lives that we feel safe? An etheric world of ghosts and hauntings without boundary is truly terrifying, indeed probably the stuff that mythologies of Hell are built upon. His practise seems to be an exercise in terror remediation – a kind of dampening down rather than an opening up of theological enquiry.
Australian media artist Grant Stevens confessed to being afraid of the ‘power of the image’ early in his career and so he abandoned it in favour of text, primarily animated cosmic clusters of text in video projections. Nevertheless, and contrarily, he is quite unafraid to explore raw authentic human emotion. His work deals with issues of love and loss, annoying mental thoughts, sanity, death. At once very profound, and also quite banal. Is he trying to go beyond the ‘supermundane’, as Dionysius calls it, of symbol and image, and raise our mind to a contemplation of heavenly things without ‘material guidance’ – beyond the imitation?
Wherefore, the Divine Institution of sacred Rites, having deemed it worthy of the supermundane imitation of the Heavenly Hierarchies, and having depicted the aforesaid immaterial Hierarchies in material figures and bodily compositions, in order that we might be borne, as far as our capacity permits, from the most sacred pictures to the instructions and similitudes without symbol and without type, transmitted to us our most Holy Hierarchy. For it is not possible for our mind to be raised to that immaterial representation and contemplation of the Heavenly Hierarchies, without using the material guidance suitable to itself,’ (Dionysius, Ch1)
Is it possible to do this? Dionysius suggests it is not. Can we depict transcendence without material figures and bodily compositions, to have revelation without symbol, without type? What is that then???! It’s quite a journey for an artist, who is up to it? I will continue to wrestle with the Image, and I will banish all borders in the Dark. : )
‘The darkness is not the absence of light, but the terror that comes from blinding light.’ Jacob Boehme
‘... every procession of illuminating light, proceeding from the Father, whilst visiting us as a gift of goodness, restores us again gradually as an unifying power, and turns us to the oneness of our conducting Father, and to a deifying simplicity.’ Dionysius
Dionysius the Areopagite, Works (1899) The Celestial Hierarchy. Vol. 2. p.1-66.
Lossky, Vladimir (1976) The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. St Vladimirs Seminary Press: New York
Roozemond-Van Ginhoven, Hetty J. (1980) Ikon: Inspired Art. De Wijenburgh: Netherlands.
Ware, Bishop Kallistos (1979) The Orthodox Way. St Vladimirs Seminary Press: New York