2nd Sunday of Lent: The Transfiguration

SCRIPTURES & ART: The Transfigured Christ is an image of the Risen Christ of Easter Sunday.

Giovanni Bellini, “The Transfiguration,” 1480
Giovanni Bellini, “The Transfiguration,” 1480 (photo: Public Domain)

The Gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent is always about the Transfiguration. Although the Fourth Sunday of Lent is Laetare Sunday and the Church dons rose vestments to mark the midpoint of Lent, the Church today already previews Easter, because the Transfigured Christ is an image of the Risen Christ of Easter Sunday. 

This early in Lent we remain at the heights, not just because the Church foreshadows the joy of Easter in the Transfiguration, but because we journey from one mountain to another. Last week, we stood on Mount Quarantiana, the Mountain of Temptation. This week, we go to Mount Tabor, the Mountain of Transfiguration. 

The Transfiguration takes place well into Jesus’ public ministry. The Gospel of the Transfiguration on the Second Sunday of Lent, although a liturgical tradition, is somewhat chronologically misleading: other events that we have heard about this year, like Jesus’ Baptism by John and his Temptation in the desert, occured at the start of his public ministry. The Transfiguration occurred further in, after Jesus has been teaching and performing miracles and having his Apostles do the same. Mark’s Gospel, which we read last year, demonstrates this most clearly: the Transfiguration is put right after the Gospel’s midpoint (9:2-10). Everything in Mark’s Gospel leads up to chapter 8 where, in response to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am,” Peter confesses at Caesarea Philippi that “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Once that confession occurs, Jesus’ path now heads inexorably towards Jerusalem, to his Passion, Death and Resurrection. Peter might have correctly acknowledged who Jesus was but, like the other Apostles, still does not fully understand in what Jesus’ Messiahship and Kingship consist.

So it’s appropriate for us, as it was for the Apostles, that as they began their journey toward Jerusalem and his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, they are bucked up by a sign that this God-Man is leading them in the way — indeed, is the Way — God intended.

Luke tells us that Jesus took the inner core of the Apostles — Peter, James and John (the same trio we met a little over a month ago on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, when they were called to be Apostles) — to go with him up a mountain “to pray” (9:28 — prayer is particularly accented in Luke’s Gospel). He is transfigured in their midst, with two Old Testament figures — Moses and Elijah — appearing with him. Those two figures are not accidental. Moses is the one who brings God’s Law. Elijah is the model prophet, whose return was associated with the coming of the Messianic era. 

Jesus repeatedly speaks of his mission to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (e.g., Matthew 5:17, Luke 24:44, John 1:45). The inclusion of the very personifications of the Law and the Prophets on Mount Tabor thereby attests to whom Jesus is.

Peter, James and John had fallen asleep (as they will in Gethsemane) but, awakened by events, propose to build huts for Jesus, Moses and Elijah (not, perhaps, unlike the huts Jews would build for the Feast of Sukkot, commemorating the huts in which they dwelled during their 40-year journey across Sinai to the Promised Land). It is then that a cloud envelopes them. 

That is the moment for Luke and Matthew that the Apostles become frightened. (Mark 9:6 suggests the moment came earlier, when Peter suggests his construction project because “they were so frightened”). 

As noted in the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, just read Feb. 6, the human encounter with God involves both fear and attraction. We want to draw closer to God — “it is good to be here” — but we also recognize who God is, who we are, and how profound is that difference because of sin. In Scripture, clouds are signs of the Divine Presence and Glory, which man cannot look upon directly. To sense one’s self being enclosed in that cloud must have been precisely that sense of mysterium tremendum on the part of our three Apostles, all pious Jews. The same envelopment by God is on display in the first reading where, as God makes his covenant with Abraham, our father in faith has a “deep, terrifying darkness envelope him” and he falls into a “trance” — a deep sleep (not unlike the one into which God cast Adam when he created Eve), another Biblical sign that an important moment in salvation history is about to take place. Here, God the Father ratifies his Son’s mission, demanding the Apostles believe even if it doesn’t measure with their expectations: “This is my Chosen Son; listen to him.”

When the event is over in Luke, Jesus is again alone with the three. One might say, in 1960s parlance, that the event “blew their mind.” After such an encounter, and with their understanding as Jews of what that encounter meant — Moses, Elijah, the Divine cloud, the Voice of God — any question why, in the face of that frightening yet attractive mystery, “they fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen?” In Mark, it is Jesus who enjoins them to keep silence “until the Son of Man is raised from the dead” (Mark 9:9). That is the “Messianic Secret,” so prominent in Mark’s Gospel: Jesus does not want premature discussion of his identity until that identity is fully revealed in his Passion, Death and Resurrection. From what Luke tells us, Jesus’ injunction in Mark and the Apostles’ sense of being overwhelmed in Luke are mutually reinforcing.

To illustrate today’s Gospel in art, I’ve chosen two paintings. Both are by the same artist, the Venetian Renaissance painter, Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516). The two paintings depict the Transfiguration, but they were produced 25-30 years apart. I chose two of them to show how even one artist can grow. The two paintings straddle two artist eras: the late Gothic and the Renaissance. The differences are palpable.

Gothic Bellini

See image at the bottom of this article.

Gothic Bellini dates from sometime between 1454-60. Some Renaissance elements are present, e.g., a somewhat developed landscape. Bellini uses angles to introduce some sense of depth and three-dimensionality, e.g., in the positioning of the trees and even of Moses and Elijah on angles. Nevertheless, an overall flatter, two-dimensional character of Gothic sacred art still dominates the picture. Jesus is on the summit of Mount Tabor, in conversation with Moses and Elijah. Some commentators say that Peter, James, and John are on the ground either blinded by or averting their eyes from the grand cosmic events unfolding before them. I would also suggest that at least one of them embodies Luke’s comments about having a solid nap and another just waking up. The surprise on the third one’s (Peter’s?) face is evident but not surprising: what do you think you’d look like if you woke up to see your Teacher in conversation with the two top figures of the Old Testament?

Renaissance Bellini

See image at the top of this article.

Compare Gothic with Renaissance Bellini. The second painting dates from 1480. Mount Tabor has been reduced in size and even set against a range of other hilltops. Gothic landscapes tend to be ahistorical and ageographical; Renaissance landscapes tend to drop you in the time and place of the artist. While some localizing elements subtly seem to creep into Gothic Bellini, Renaissance Bellini clearly has dropped Mount Tabor in the middle of a northern Italian village. (We even have two other people in the background on the right, who seem oblivious to the cosmic salvific event taking place, as well as a man and cow on the left. Those are additional details that would never appear in Gothic religious art, being deemed superfluous). Unlike the somewhat groggy Apostles of Gothic Bellini, Renaissance Bellini’s Peter, James and John are clearly awake, frightened, and averting their eyes from the Christological theophany occurring in front of them. 

The lines of the persons in the paintings grow much softer in Renaissance Bellini. Renaissance Bellini has also enhanced the three-dimensional character of the painting. As one Dominican commentator noted, by making the three Apostles smaller Bellini makes the three more characters — Jesus, Moses and Elijah — bigger. Inserting the railing also inserts distance (and acts as something like a sanctuary rail, separating the sacrum in there from the profanum out here. That’s not completely true, however, given the profane setting behind the event, including our additional people). The railing also fences off a chasm that enforces that separation, while also indicating a path so that we can find our way to the Lord. Again, the central Apostle (Peter?), staring at us, leads us into the picture — an appropriate role for Peter.

The same event and the same artist, but different artistic periods can make such a difference.

Giovanni Bellini, “The Transfiguration,” ca. 1460
Giovanni Bellini, “The Transfiguration,” ca. 1460