The Transfigured Christ and the Two Natures Controversy

In addition to seeing the variations in Jesus' image based on his different roles (savior and teacher versus judge and king), a key text of Scripture also points to a variation in the appearance of Jesus at the crucial moment of his transfiguration. Up on a high mountain, Jesus appeared to Peter, James, and John as Lransligured, his face shining like the sun and his clothes dazzling white (Matt 17:1-8 and parallels), Origen pointed to this text as the proof that all persons were not equally able to look upon this sight in its fill I glory. Peter, James, and John were singled out from the others as alone capable of this vision, and in this way these three parallel Moses and Elijah who were both allowed a divine theo-phany upon a mountain. As if this were his cue, Moses also appears, suddenly, with Elijah, talking to Jesus. And a bright cloud overshadowed them all from which a voice said; "This is my Soil, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" (Matt 17:5; compare the voice at Jesus1 baptism, Matt 3:17).

Fig. 85. Medallion portrait of Chnst Iron arch of presty--eriurn, San Vhale, Ravenna {Photo; Author)

Fig. Transfiguration mosaic, m id-6th ten. apse of San Apo linare in Classe, Ra^nna (Photo; Author).

Based upon this passage in the Gospels, Origen argued that Jesus had two modes of appearance: one for his daily appearance in his earthly life as a human (which would not cause comment or raise issues) and the other that only shone forth on one (known) occasion prior to his death on the cross. Origen uses this as a reason why those who came to arrest Jesus in the garden did not recognize him, because he was already "transfigured 1)50 Thus Christ's outward figure or form was capable of visible change during his life and also after his resurrection (according to the Gospel narratives), when he was not necessarily immediately recognizable and might be mistaken for the gardener (John 20: J 5) or for an ordinary traveler (Luke 24:13-35) or even just a person standing on the beach (John 21:4), until he caused his followers to "open their eyes5' (Luke 24:31). Later exegetes also saw the transfiguration as a vision of future glory granted to certain disciples. John Chrvsostom, for example, surmised that the ultimate purpose of the vision was to reassure and give hope to the disciples, who had heard Christ talking much about dangers and death, even of impending slaughter of the disciples themselves. At the same time, it revealed who Christ really was and anticipated the glory of his second coming."

The artistic portrayal of the transfigured Christ in particular required that the artist find a distinct way to show the change in his

appearance as the Lhree disciples saw iL The oldest known portrayals of the transfiguration both date to the mid-sixth century, and then almost no images occur again until the high Middle Ages, The first, found i n the apse of the Basilica of San Apollinare in Classe just outside of Ravenna, shows the transfiguration made up of symbols rather than a realistic narrative image. Half-figures of Moses and Elijah float amid clouds on either side of a starry medallion containing a jeweled cross that has a bust of Christ (with beard) fixed to the crossing of the arms. Below the cross are the words SflivKS MuruU. Beneath the medallion and to either side on the ground (a green field dotted with flowers) we see the three disciples James, Peter, and John, but here portrayed as sheep. The hand of God issues from heaven just over the medallion. The starry medallion is centered in the apse in such a way as to give the impression of an ocu-lus window, opening into the night sky (fig. 86).

Dated a little later (only a decade or so) is a more narrative-based apse mosaic at Saint Catherine's monastery in Sinai, In this image, Jesus appears in gleaming white garments with gold bands. He stands within an almond-shaped aureole around his entire body {mandorla)t made up of shimmering bands of blue and radiating beams of light. The rest of the ground is shimmering gold. The three disciples (Peter, James, and John) kneel in amazement at the sight (Peter, in the center, actually prostrate) and are identified by the names over their heads. The two prophets Stand to either side, also named for our convenience.

This image is a better illustration of the Story of the transfiguration as it appears in the text, especially since the figure of Jesus is clad in white garments, as it says in the Gospel of Mark: "glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them" (9:3) The Saint Catherine's composition may have served as a model, since later Eastern icons share many of these same features— the aureole of light fractured by rays, three amazed disciples (the one in the center falling completely to his face), Elijah and Moses stand to either side of the spectacle" (fig. 87).

Fig. E7. Byzantine fans-portable icon depicting tne transfiguration .mosaic from the Louvre Museunn. Paris (Photo; Bridgeman Art Library).

L Iil- transfiguraron images, rare as they were, weiea waj ni rctkcring i hl1 twodi&tinct nalurcs ofChrísl, both human and divine, and gavean indicalion nf what to :omeh after ^fiu resurrection, whtn he ascended in|€> hcavrn. Thiü wAsscen in some mode by ihree of hisdisd-plcswhik hrwaM still alive. Eif Iil'i than lIil- s¡s.Lli century.however, there ni ay Llví been üther ways for artists ni rc"\f.U the divine nature of < !ln ist. I ur instante» chi- Lhc nt gold -k background or giving Jesús .1 halo wert simple ways oí indica!ing (hat he pusstssed divine nature ai well as ahuman form. lim .1' ]ea*t ftne eíample, a lale fourth-centurv lunette nu'^ik ítozn ¿ chambei of the Catacomb of Domitilla, addressed the matter oí his carthly iranstendenoe in .1 difieren! way.This compositíon shawed seated on -i high batked throne ivithin a bright ^tl-l.-n aureole. Seated [<■■ either side .lil- Peter .likI Paul and at Christ's feet [beneath :he aureole) is .1 leathcr container icúpfa) containing wrdlK, perhaps a referente to his role the teacher of true philosophy, ]n large green mosaic lettcrs that make .1 burder inr thc mosaic is the Iqjcnd: ILVou are called the Son and fcund to be the ^:.^rh^■^ > fJ-rrj filim diccrií ct pati t inventé ií).

suth ¿ legend seems (o come right oui 1 ihelatcfourth-cenlury oon-trovcrsiís over the rclatiomhip hptw-ccn tfn1 Faiher .nul the Son. .aiitl ¡l sddríise* 111 l1 sptdfit question ofwhether they are of equal n^L^Lirt- yet distinel persons (The orlhodí?* formula) or oí difierent natures, the Son being cncatcd by 11l*.- I'.mIut (the Arian positinn).This mo&ait seems L*.■ tak£ a ihird position, rather like the Sabellian, or rnodalist, one—the Son, d.«piCe his carthly .íp^f.nr.int:th Íj 1 hl1 Father, úrte and the same kinu {one person with one nature).

l"tu argumenta on all sides of thisquestion are toovasl to summarizc hitl'. Howcvcr, one '•■•w ihat suminarizes many nf the íííués also addrcises tht rraUer ofthe distinct appearance of Jesús, who by virtue of his di^'iiiL' nature must h.ivL.' had ^or.u: appanerl pkiry. even in huTnan appearance. Gnegtjry \t( N.j/i.hiL/L^. ]nhil 2\7- S. Lir^Liud that (Ihriit voluntarily strippcd a^ay his ^■iL.il^lk, glúty ^Ll it be com-prehenüihle Id human '. ¡^1^31:

ll "ic hjd dwrfL«l wiihin his eminentí, if he hid rtol CurUléWírldtJ ií> itifirmiTy, il he hjd remaijied whul he wai, keepdng hlmscLf unapprciachabLc and ititomprchcciiLble, 1. fin píihap^ ■ "-u.ld hjv? fu|]uweJ him perhaps nirt íven m fevi-, jjoosiW} mm:-. Mlwíí jnd ht nnty sn tjT ü to em with diffi-lu]iv the twdt |i¿r> oí üod. For he pmetratpd the doud, rither being placed i-uKkIl ihf weieJu oí (he boJ>- or Liei nj w¡1 hdí jwn I r; ■ n, h is üíiis«; finí hnw WHld ht hív- upon the suhdcl mi the Lncarporeity, nr I luiow not onc sJiould ca.LI it, uf üodh being incorptiratc and using rtlilííiil i-yes? Bul ■■..i-iT'iii h .i-- lu- siripa himíclt foj lu. inasmuch .m he camcs down (and I spejk of an abasemcnl. as u werc, a Layini; asi.de and .1 diminuli^n Of I ■ ¡ — glory). he becomes lny ihis i■«r^p^í^niF^siWe■,',

Thus the ar Li sans might want to represent that glory, and yet also its diminution, in compositions that placed Christ within an halo of light, either as transcendent and enthroned (as in the mosaic fro in Hosios David described above, p. 157) or by showing him at the moment of the transfiguration, when he did in fact appear to some human eyes in his full divine glory. Only certain persons could have barely glimpsed such glory, and then only at certain moments, tor as Gregory says, in most circumstances Christ had to lower himself to base human form or be otherwise incomprehensible. Thus, when the three disciples looked upon the transfigured Jesus, they had a visual intimation of his full divine glory, and their vision was itself a sign that such seeing was actually possible to those who were spiritually aware or open.-1

But even so, these images are arguments tor the possibility of depicting Jesus not only in his humanity but also in his divinity, a feat that Ensebius It ad denied was possible in that letter to Constantia where he purportedly claimed that no image could represent both natures. In his argument, he also cited the transfiguration as his example, a sight almost unb ear ably glorious:

Indeed, it Ls not surprising ihat after his ascent to heaven he .should have appeared as such* when, while lie—the God Logos—was yet living among moitals he changed | from] the form of a servant and indicating in advance to ;i chosen band of his disciples the asp eel ofhis kingdom, he showed on the mount that nature which surpasses the human one—when his iace shone like the sun and his garments like light. Who then would be able to represent by means of dead colors and inanimate delineations the glistening, flashing radiance of such dignity and glory, when even his superhuman disciples could riot bear to behold him. in this guise and fell on their faces, thus admitting that they could not withstand the- sight? . . . lh>w can one paint an image of so wondrous ¡ind unattainable a form—if the term "Form" is yt ill I applicable to the divine and spirit ual essence—unless, like the unbelieving pagans, one is to represent tilings that bear no possible resemblance to anything?"

The way this text frames the issue puts it directly within the controversy Surrounding the matter of Christ's natures, and, if genuine, the letter anticipates the chris to logical controversy of the late fourth and early fifth centuries. The issue at stake was now no longer the equality of the divinity of Father and Son., but the ways in which Christ's dual natures (human and divine) were united for kept distinct) in one Person after the incarnation. Eusebius's point was that, even though the human Jesus had a physical appearance, that appearance was thoroughly and necessarily altered by its being mingled, with the divine nature so as to render it beyond the capability of any human artist to represent. This new appearance was seen in the transfiguration, but it certainly could not be reproduced by a painted portrait, because it was unique. It had no possible resemblance to anything 011 earth.

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