From The Transfiguration
We would have thrown our clothes away for lightness,
But that even they, though sour and travel stained,
Seemed, like our flesh, made of immortal substance,
And the soiled flax and wool lay light upon us
Like friendly wonders, flower and flock entwined
As in a morning field. Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
Every morning I pray “Lord help me see the world through Your eyes today.” Like a child before a masterpiece of fine art, we might easily admire the sight of a lovely landscape, but that perspective dims compared to that same painting viewed by another who has studied the nuances of art and spent years learning the craft. But wait! How much more could the painting be understood if the Artist was standing alongside – describing that which can only be held in the Creator’s mind?
When Jesus was transfigured before three of his apostles, the Bible says that they saw it only when “they were fully awake.”
Now it came to pass, about eight days after these sayings, that He took Peter, John, and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 As He prayed, the appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening. 30 And behold, two men talked with Him, who were Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 But Peter and those with him were heavy with sleep; and when they were fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men who stood with Him.
Art: The Transfiguration, Duccio, 1308-11
This panel was part of the back predella of Duccio’s ‘Maestà’, and was immediately to the right of ‘Jesus opens the Eyes of a Man born Blind’. Another panel from the ‘Maestà’ is in the collection, ‘The Annunciation’.
The ‘Maestà’ was a monumental double-sided altarpiece ceremoniously delivered to Siena Cathedral in June 1311, and placed on the high altar. At the time it was the richest and most complex altarpiece in Christendom, but it was dismembered in 1771, and although most of it is in the Cathedral Museum in Siena, several predella panels and pinnacles are dispersed in collections throughout the world. The front of the altarpiece shows the Virgin and Child enthroned with saints and apostles, the predella depicts Christ’s childhood, and the pinnacles, the last days of the Vigin. On the reverse the narrative runs from Christ’s earthly ministry through his Passion to his latter day appearances.
Liturgy and Literature: The Transfiguration
The Transfiguration is described, with minor variations, in Matt. 17:1-13, Mark 9:2-13, and Luke 9:28-36. The fourth Gospel does not mention it. All three descriptions agree that Jesus, accompanied by Peter, James, and John, went up to a mountain (unnamed in the text but, according to tradition and the Geneva Bible, Mt. Tabor), where he and his garments were illuminated by a heavenly light and where he spoke with Moses and Elijah. The key verb in the narration (Gk. metamorphoō) is translated by almost all English versions as the exact Latin equivalent, “transfigured.” The only other biblical reference to the event is in 2 Pet. 1:16-18.
A linkage appears in Emily Dickinson’s “Taking up the fair Ideal,” after the Ideal becomes “fractured”:
Cherishing —our poor Ideal
Till in purer dress
We behold her —glorified —
Comforts —search —like this —
Till the broken creatures —
We adored —for whole —
Stains —all washed —
Transfigured —mended —
Meet us —with a smile —
This poem merges the Transfiguration with the biblical metaphor of blood-soaked garments made clean and pure —especially common in the Protestant hymns on which Dickinson drew so heavily.
When Coleridge takes up the word transfigure, he assumes its resonances without referring strictly to the biblical event: in “Religious Musings” (1794-96) he describes a soul at first besieged and terrified by the spiritual dangers of this world, then calmed and assured, “refresh’d from Heaven.” Now,
… faith’s whole armor glitters on his limbs!
And thus transfigured with a dreadless awe,
A solemn hush of soul, meek he beholds
All things of terrible seeming; …
Thus the notion of transfiguration is accommodated to the Romantic doctrine of the Sublime.
Livingston, Travis L. “The Symbolic Use of Greek Myth and Biblical Saga in the Poetry of Edwin Muir.” DAI 39/1 (1978), 281A.
David L. Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992).