Matthew 17:2 “...and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light.”
The transfiguration is an episode in the life of Jesus Christ narrated in the synoptic gospels: Matthew 17: 1-8, Mark 9:2-8 and Luke 9: 28 - 36. The transfiguration is the name used to designate the episode narrated in the gospels, in which Jesus briefly revealed his glory to the disciples Peter, James and John, when he was transfigured before them. The transfiguration revealed his external aspect solely for the purpose described above. According to these texts, when Jesus was alone with the disciples peter, James and John, he changed his appearance showing the three disciples the extraordinary splendour of his person and his amazing white garments. In this context, Moses and Elijah appear and begin conversing with Jesus. A voice is heard coming from a cloud, announcing the divinity of his son Jesus. The splendour of Christ evokes his transcendence, while the presence of Moses and Elijah symbolizes the law and the prophets who announced the coming of the messiah, his passion and glorification. The cloud refers to theophany documented in the Old Testament. The simplest and most beautiful text, which summarizes and anticipates Christian hope, is a paraphrased footnote in the apocalypse of Peter, which reads: “and my Lord Jesus Christ our king said unto me: let us go unto the holy mountain. And his disciples went with him, praying. And behold there were two men there, and we could not look upon their faces, for a light came from them, shining more than the sun...” the gospels indicate a “high mountain” as the location of the transfiguration. Even though the New Testament does not name this mountain, tradition immediately identified mount tabor as the site of the transfiguration of the Lord.
Mount Tabor (in Arabic, Jebel et-turn, “the mountain”) is located at the far end of the plain of Esdraelon, in Galilee, about 20 kilometres southwest of Lake Tiberias and 7 kilometres southwest of Nazareth, travelling in a straight line. It stands alone on the plain at an altitude of 588 meters. Its strategic importance, the beauty of its foliage, its uniqueness and the panorama the summit affords on the valley below, have always fascinated travellers and pilgrims, designating it a prominent destination in the history of the chosen people. At one time the via maris that was a strategic axis and trade hub between the Mediterranean and Asia ran at its base. In 218 BC, there were many roads and caravan trails that crossed the fertile plain of Esdraelon, in Galilee. Travellers arriving from Mesopotamia and Syria, upon following the coast of the sea of Gennesaret, would cross the plain westward to reach the Mediterranean sea and go to Egypt. Those who started in the south, from Hebron, followed the path that goes from Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Samaria, crossing it in the north, near Nazareth. The only witness to their journeys was Mount Tabor. If it had been part of a mountain range, it would have gone unnoticed. Instead, it is a lone mountain that due to its conical shape appears to be a volcano - although its origin is calcareous-and the fact that it rises more than 300 meters above the surrounding terrain, gives it a strikingly higher appearance. Its slopes are covered with extraordinary vegetation and there is an impressive view from the top of the mountain, where cypress trees abound on a wide plateau. Mount Tabor became the scenario for the cult of the Canaanite people who worshiped the idols of the high plains. the military built fortifications there as observatories for the entire region. There are traces of human presence that date back as far as 70.000 years ago. The Greek- syrian army of Antiochus III briefly occupied Mount Tabor and nearby, in 66 BC the Romans, as Josephus Flavius wrote in Jewish wars, fought with rebel Jews. Mount Tabor is mentioned often in the Old Testament and even though it is not at all mentioned in the gospels, it soon became one of the pilgrimage destinations in the holy land, as evidenced by the remains of church and monastic structures from the Constantine and especially Byzantine and crusades eras. In 1100, Tancred of Hauteville established a Benedictine community there, which was later dispersed by Saladin’s troops following the victory over the crusader army at Karn Hattin (1187). The Muslim ayyubids erected an imposing fortress that threatened Latin possessions, and caused the fifth crusade (1217-1221) in which st Francis participated, thus marking the beginning of the Franciscan presence in the levant. In 1631, Diego campanile of San Severino, custos of the holy land, concluded the purchase of tabor. Starting in 1858 the Franciscans built a small monastery, a hospice for pilgrims and a temporary chapel. The Orthodox Christians rebuilt the old convent of st. Elias in the same manner. The current basilica of the transfiguration on Mount Tabor was designed by the architect Antonio Barluzzi and built in 1924.
The date officially acknowledged in eastern and western churches as the liturgical celebration in memory of the transfiguration is the eve of 6 August. Many faithful from Nazareth and Galilee climb the mountain to celebrate the commemoration.
When the cult of Christianity began to be freely professed, the image of Christ triumphant dominated in churches. The transfiguration, in which the divine and human character of God is simultaneously glorified, became widely represented. In the mosaic in the apse of st. Catherine in Sinai, dating back to the 6th or 7th century, the saviour is dressed in white and raised up in a blue halo, the apostles are either prostrate at his feet or their arms are raised, while Moses and Elijah stand on either side of Jesus.
Around 585, the transfiguration was represented in the Basilica of Santa Restituta a.k.a. Stefania, in Naples. In the Sant’Apollinare in Classe church in Ravenna, the transfiguration becomes pure abstraction and the artistic expression of the allegorical byzantine world. Christ is represented on a cross in a circle of stars, with Moses and Elijah on either side. Peter, James and John are represented as sheep on the hills Christ and the apostles are still depicted in their corporeal forms in the 9th century mosaic on the arch of the apse in the Church of Saints Nereus and Achilleus in Rome.
Ghiberti created the panel of the transfiguration for the North Door of the Baptistery in Florence in the iconographic manner of the late Middle Ages. The panel reflects Ghiberti’s full adherence to Gothic-international influence in the decorative shapes and draperies and in the rhythm of the composition, which is similar to other panels of the first stage of his work (1401-1415). The other panels created in the early stages of his work include: the agony in the garden, Jesus among the doctors, temptation of Christ, the crucifixion, the last supper and the figures of the evangelists and the fathers of the church.
The central scheme of the composition is symmetric in the quatrefoil frame within which it is carved. Christ is positioned in the centre at the top of the panel, standing on top of the mountain. He is represented in the act of revealing his divinity with his arms raised and his palms open facing the viewer. The prophets are positioned on either side and slightly below him, both beholding the son of God. Elijah is on the right and Moses is on the left, holding a cane. The figures of the three apostles who accompanied Jesus to the
mountain are huddled at Christ’s feet, caught in the moment of being blinded by the divine light. The apostles are disoriented and hiding their eyes from the glow that emanates from the transfiguration of the son of God. The positioning of the apostles gives the panel dynamism, highlighted by the movement of their elegant draperies, in contrast with the divine immobility of Christ and the prophets. The background of the composition is the rock mass of the mountain, which is the perfect solution for this episode and it is also the landscape that Ghiberti repeatedly employed in the other panels of the North Door.
The art of the Renaissance renewed medieval styles and schemes. In a fresco in St. Mark’s Church in Florence, Fra’ Angelico highlighted only the heads of Moses and Elijah to emphasize the apparition of Christ.
In the fresco by Perugino in Perugia the delicate light invites all to divine contemplation. The double iconography of Christ on the mountain inserted in an almond has been merged in this representation as well.