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Monday, August 05, 2013

Transfiguration on Mount Sinai


Apse mosaic of The Transfiguration of Christ
AD 548 - 565
Monastery of St Catherine, Mount Sinai
Kurt Weitzman, January 1964 National Geographic Magazine

The main structure within the monastery is the Church of the Transfiguration, which is the work of the Byzantine architect Stephanos

The main Church of the Transfiguration was built in the 560s, around the time of the Emperor Justinian's death.

Behind the apse is the holiest part of the Monastery, the Chapel of the Burning Bush, which incorporates the 4th-century chapel built by the  Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, and dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary

The Monastery was originally referred to as the Cathedral of the Transfiguration. It was not until several centuries later that the Monastery came to be associated with St. Catherine of Alexandria



Above and around the scene of the Transfiguration, medallions of the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist are on either side of the Lamb of God (the Deesis). You will also note the other medallions of holy men and women.

The image of the Transfiguration has an iconic quality as one might expect

The aim was to draw the viewer closer and uplift him  by contemplation of the holy image

The figures lack material form deliberately. They face front. The viewer is brought into contact with the divine

Of apse mosaics and paintings at this time, the art historian Beat Brenk of La Sapienza in Rome and also of Universitat Basel  has written:
"The purpose of the apse paintings was entirely different from that of the nave mosaics, of whose existence most congregants were probably unaware. The nave mosaics were usually devoted to the earthly life of Christ and the saints. 
The fact that the apse was located behind the altar would almost automatically mean that its theme was associated with the act of worship.  
But appearances are deceptive.  
Apse pictures are not liturgical pictures even when they depict Christ as a particularly large and isolated figure, as is the case in S. Cosma e Damiano in Rome.  
Apse images were never worshipped, but they attracted notice, and in some cases they teach the believer how to approach the divine. 
Cult objects must somehow be accessible to and palpable for congregants, but apse pictures never were.  
Their function was to direct the congregation’s gaze to the hereafter.  
The spherical curve of the apse was itself an image of the cosmos.  
Virtually all apse pictures portray Christ, Mary or the saints with stars, clouds and rainbows on a blue or gold background.  
Apse pictures were part of the presbytery, which was clearly separated from the congregation’s area in the nave or side aisles.  
Apse images never tell a story, but instead provide congregants with a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven.  
Congregants would have found convincing the proposition that, once in heaven, the saints would intercede with Christ and Mary on their behalf.  
Apse mosaics and their depictions of a Christian ‘Olympus’ were one of the most impressive innovations of Christian art." 
From Beat Brenk in Art and Propaganda fide in Christian art and architecture, in  300–600  in Constantine to c. 600: The Cambridge History of Christianity ; volume 2 edited by Augustine Casiday and FrederickW. Norris (2008)

The scene is the representation of the scene when  death was imminent but before the final journey to Jerusalem, he took his three favoured apostles on a spiritual retreat on a mountain. They were Peter, James and John and are shown lying on the ground at the feet of Christ.

The story is narrated in Luke 9: 29 - 36
"The Transfiguration of Jesus 
28 About eight days after he said this, he took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray. 
29 While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. 
30 And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, 
31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. 
32 Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. 
33 As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he did not know what he was saying. 
34 While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud. 
35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” 
36 After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. They fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen."

To prevent any misunderstanding as with the custom in such mosaics and icons of the time, the artist has inserted large inscriptions underneath each of the figures (except Christ) identifying each figure.

Moses and Elijah represent the Old Testament law and the prophets. On Mount Sinai both Moses and Elijah received  a theophany and a commission.

As the heavenly voice indicated,  Jesus was the one to be listened to now.

According to Luke the three discuss the Exodus of Jesus: the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus that will take place in Jerusalem

Hence the size and central position in the firmament of the figure of Christ

Exodus recalls the mission of Moses and his encounter with God at the burning bush on Mount Sinai

One recalls that after his encounter with God, Moses` face was shining, transformed and transfigured that people could not look on him.

Two  sixth-century mosaics adorn the area above the triumphal arch just in front of  the entrance to the Chapel of the Burning Bush. One depicts Moses at the burning bush, while the other shows him receiving the Law on Mt Sinai.

The pairing of the burning bush with the reception of the Law reflects the transformation that Moses underwent.

From most favoured at the Egyptian Court, he gave up his position and wealth to obey God`s command and begin a life of wandering in the desert. He becomes the leader of Israel. He talked with God.


Sinai (or Mount Horeb) was  significant in the story of Elijah. 1 Kings 19 tells the story

Prompted by an angel, he journeyed to Mount Horeb (Sinai). God comes to him and orders him to return to what Elijah fears is certain death:
"9 There he came to a cave, where he took shelter. But the word of the LORD came to him: Why are you here, Elijah? 
10 He answered: “I have been most zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant. They have destroyed your altars and murdered your prophets by the sword. I alone remain, and they seek to take my life.” 
11 Then the LORD said: Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will pass by. There was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD—but the LORD was not in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake—but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 
12 after the earthquake, fire—but the LORD was not in the fire; after the fire, a light silent sound. 
13 When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said to him, Why are you here, Elijah? 
14 He replied, “I have been most zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken your covenant. They have destroyed your altars and murdered your prophets by the sword. I alone remain, and they seek to take my life.” 
15 The LORD said to him: Go back! Take the desert road to Damascus"

Elijah  raised the dead, brought fire down from the sky, and was taken up in a whirlwind In the Book of Malachi, Elijah's return is prophesied "before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord

These are perhaps only a few of the thoughts or meditations of Stephanos in the late 6th century