They are usually painted on wood, fresco or done in mosaic, and they always illustrate portions of scripture. Icons are regarded by the major liturgical churches as “graphic scripture”, and like scripture, icons are said to be written rather than painted. By interacting with them, in prayer and contemplation, icons can be a doorway to a spiritual connection that one might not otherwise experience. If that seems like a bit of an anachronism with no relevance in today’s world, consider this: We call those little images on our computer desktops “icons”, and there is a very intentional reason for that. They work exactly the same way as religious icons. Instead of with prayer, we interact with computer icons by clicking on them and, with luck, a whole world of information opens up behind the icon. (Though, in my case, I haven’t completely abandoned the interaction by prayer—“Please God, let this program open up!”) Such is the case with the icon we have before us today: the icon of the transfiguration of our Lord.
The three synoptic Gospels tell us that Jesus took the three apostles, James, Peter, and John “the beloved” and led them up a high mountain. There, he was transfigured into blinding light; both his face and clothing changing before their eyes. Matthew, in today’s Gospel, writes, that “His face shown like the sun, and His clothes became dazzling white.” Mark comments that his clothes were “such that no one on earth could bleach them”.
Luke tells us that the transfiguration took place while Jesus was praying. This last commentary is what is depicted in this icon, where Jesus is raising His hands in prayer and, as Luke says, “While He was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and His clothes became dazzling white.” Then, before the eyes of the apostles, appeared the Old Testament prophets Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus. Then, if that was not already enough, a voice came out of a cloud and said “This is my Son, the beloved.”
The icon we are blessing today is a symbolic representation of the event described in the Gospels. The composition of this icon follows a strictly symmetrical scheme. A stylized mountain landscape is characterized by a central peak flanked by lesser peaks on either side. Jesus stands (or almost floats) on the central peak. He is clothed in a white and gold robe that appears to have dazzling light coming from within it. This is not sunlight. It is the uncreated light of God. Furthermore, He is surrounded by a gold and red boat-shaped image known as a “mandorla—the ancient symbol of the creator God. At Jesus’ feet is a round medallion showing an agnus dei—the lamb of God, which is one of the earliest symbols for our Lord. On either side of His upraised arms are the Greek letters that form the abbreviations of His name (Jesus) and His title (Christ). In the ancient world, names and titles were believed to have great power and most icons are tagged with the name of the principal subject.
Jesus is flanked by the two prophets. Moses is on His left (your right), and Elijah on His right, each standing on his own peak. The image of Jesus is larger than the two prophets. This follows an iconic convention, which calls for the most important figure to be the biggest. Moses carries the tablets representative of the Law, and Elijah wears the “cloak of prophesy” that he passed on to Elishah before ascending to Heaven in the chariot of fire.
James, Peter, and John are represented by the three medallions at the bottom of the icon. Normally, the three apostles are shown as figures rather than symbols, however, the round shape of this icon did not permit that design. The medallions, however, are accurate copies of the symbolic representations of these apostles that appear in the stained glass windows at the back of the church. These designs have been a part of this church since its construction. James is symbolized by the three shells. After his martyrdom in the first century, Jame’s remains were moved to the village of Compostela in NW Spain, and the cockle shell became the symbol worn by pilgrims to his tomb. Peter is symbolized by the crossed keys based on what Jesus told him: “I give you the keys to my kingdom.” Jame’s brother John is identified by the serpent in the chalice, which symbolizes his willingness to drink from the same cup as Jesus, and which leads to his death.
The Latin word for transfiguration, transfiguratio, means “to be changed to another form”. The Transfiguration, therefore, is a revelation of Christ’s divine nature, a manifestation of the Trinity, and confirmation of the continuity between the Old and the New Testaments. This is shown symbolically by all of the white and gold lines that cris-cross the image of Jesus and seem to come from within Him, rather than from an external source. This light is the central feature of this icon and is known as the uncreated light of God. It is a supernatural light with transforming power that has its source in God’s own being. As Jesus becomes that light, his true nature is revealed. As Paul says in his letter to the Colossians, “For in Him the whole fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily.
Thus the disciples heard the voice the Father, saw the Son, and were enveloped by the Holy Spirit in the brilliance of the uncreated light. They also witnessed Moses and Elijah, who represented the “Law and Prophets”, and who confirmed that Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophesies. Thus, the God they had served so faithfully for so long, without actually seeing, could now be seen and spoken to face to face. Here, in the blinding light on the mountain of the Transfiguration, the prophets and the disciples were able to witness God’s personified radiance directly.