Like most Transfiguration images, the 12th-century mosaic above needs little explanation because it closely follows Matthew 17. Jesus stands on "a high mountain" with Elijah on his right and Moses on his left. Below, Peter asks about making "tabernacles" (tents). The text says the disciples "fell upon their face and were very much afraid," but the artist divides that image in two, putting John on his knees and James registering fear in his face. The one unusual aspect of the image is the color of Jesus' garments, which the text says became "white as snow."
The mandorla and the broad "light rays" emanating from Jesus in this mosaic are details that go back to the earliest known Transfiguration image in St. Catherine's monastery on Mount Sinai (6th century). They also appear in a 12th-century fresco in Le Puy also from the 12th. In most Western Transfigurations after the 12th century the artists do without the rays and content themselves with a literal representation of the Gospel story (example). Usually, the artist will try to cover some or all of the four responses recorded in the various gospels: awakening from sleep (Luke 9:32), seeing his glory (ibid.), reacting in fear (Mark 9:5), and falling on their face (Matthew 17:6) – example.
But two famous Transfigurations go well beyond the literal. The most unusual is this mosaic at Sant'Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna: Resolutely allegorical, the mosaic represents the transfigured Christ as a jeweled cross with Jesus' face in the center – and also as the Good Shepherd, with the three disciples represented by three sheep on the left and right. The "high mountain" becomes a medallion of stars on a sky-blue field, and Moses and Elijah float in the clouds to the left and right. Above the scene, a simple hand represents the Father's words of commendation. Below it, St. Apollinaris continues the mission of shepherding in a present pictured as a green field.
The other famous Transfiguration is Raphael's in the Pinacoteca Vaticana: Raphael's great innovation was to elicit the meaning of the Transfiguration by pairing it with the episode that follows in the gospels. While Peter, James, and John are with Jesus on the mountain, a father brings his possessed child to the other disciples. We see them trying unsuccessfully to cure the boy, but after descending from the mountain Jesus will drive the demon out of him. He will then explain to the nine that they failed because of their lack of faith, a charge that is mediated to the viewer by St. Matthew in the foreground with his gospel.
Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University
Transfiguration mosaic in the Palatine Chapel, Palermo. See the description page for discussion.
MATTHEW 17:1-8: And after six days Jesus taketh unto him Peter and James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into a high mountain apart: And he was transfigured before them. And his face did shine as the sun: and his garments became white as snow. And behold there appeared to them Moses and Elias talking with him. And Peter answering, said to Jesus: Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles, one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. And as he was yet speaking, behold a bright cloud overshadowed them. And lo, a voice out of the cloud, saying: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: hear ye him. And the disciples hearing, fell upon their face, and were very much afraid. And Jesus came and touched them: and said to them, Arise, and fear not. And they lifting up their eyes saw no one but only Jesus. And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying: Tell the vision to no man, till the Son of man be risen from the dead.