FROM GOLGOTHA TO GLORY: ‘Transfiguration’ by Fra Angelico (1442)
The essence of today’s Gospel finds a deep rooted expression through the painting in consideration. It is titled ‘Transfiguration’ and executed by the fabulous Fra Angelico. The honorary epithet ‘Fra Angelico’ or ‘the Angelic Brother’ was attributed to the painter after his death in 1455. Baptised Guido di Piero, his love for Christ led him to enter the religious order of the Dominicans in 1420.
Vasari, the great author of the ‘Lives of Artists’ (1550), describes Angelico as a ‘simple and most holy man who painted with facility and piety.’ Vasari goes on to describe his saintly life stating, ‘Fra Angelico never set his hand to a brush without first saying a prayer. He never painted a crucifix without tears streaming down his cheeks. He befriended the poor and now is befriended by Heaven.’ Truth as these words hold, in 1982, Pope John Paul II proclaimed the beatification of this ‘Blessed’ painter, recognising him as the ‘Saint of all Artists.’
But where and when did it all begin? In 1435 Cosimo de Medici, the rich banker and Gonfalonier of Florence, donated a sumptuous amount to renovate the Dominican convent and the Church of San Marco. Fra Angelico was given the task to paint the altar piece and decorate the walls of the Church and of the Convent.
Of all the religious orders, the Dominicans attributed great consideration to visual images as mediums of prayers, meditation and study. The cell of each friar was furnished with not only a bed, desk and kneeler but also a contemplative fresco representing an episode from the Life of Christ. These paintings often depicted the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Dominic as prayerful and powerful witnesses to the Divine source of action.
One such Gospel synthesized fresco is the ‘Transfiguration’. Executed in 1442, it features on the wall of Cell 8 in the East Corridor, also known as the Corridor of the Elderly clerics. The absolute glory of Christ before the Golgotha demise is mysteriously evoked through this painting.
We are at once captivated by the Divine, all-embracing figure of Jesus. He stands on a rock with arms outstretched and eyes downcast. Cloaked in a sumptuous mass of white drapery, Christ’ raiment resonates his divinity. A radiant mandorla surrounds his body while the cruciform halo bears witness to the Trinity. This beguiling image of Christ is well reminiscent of the renowned Brazilian Art Deco Statue of Christ the Redeemer.
In the painting, the appearance of Jesus is far different than that of a regular Jew. For, as the Gospel states, as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered and Christ was transfigured. His form transcended human understanding revealing his divine dimension, as never seen before, to the awe-struck disciples. It’s was a mystery which history at once rushed to witness.
In accordance to the narrative, on either side of Christ are pictured the ‘old testament’ visages of Moses and Elijah. Moses, identified by the two rays of light, symbolizes the law while Elijah on our right stands for the prophets. Thus the Transfiguration embodies Jesus as the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets.
The setting of the scene is striking as well. Mountains in the Bible are often metaphors of God’s manifestation. They allude to a state of heightened consciousness and represent a highway to the higher world. It exemplifies the confluence of the Divine and the human, of the ordinary and the extra-ordinary. Interestingly, in the Old Testament both Elijah and Moses received revelations from Yahweh on an elevation. While Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, Elijah heard God’s voice on Mount Horeb in the ‘sound of sheer silence.’
Beholding this transcending scene are the three apostles of Christ – Peter, James and John. Their positions present their reaction to the voice from the cloud. ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ In awe and wonder, the three apostles prostrate themselves before this mystical vision as the magnanimous glory engulfs their beings. John raises his hand to shield his eyes of the ‘blinding’ image of Christ while his brother James appears to hide his face in humility. However the ever-spontaneous Peter, courageously gazes at the splendour set before them and raises his hands in praise and surrender.
Right above the apostles kneel the faithful disciples. On either edge of the fresco, Fra Angelico has presented the Blessed Virgin Mary and the patron Saint Dominic in positions of prayer and devotion. They serve as mediators between the Dominican friars in the cells and transfigured Christ Himself.
Intriguingly, both Moses and Elijah were believed by many Jews to be precursors of God’s ‘appointed-time.’ Their mystical presence on the mountain confirms to this belief. As Christ stands upright, His outstretched arms shadows the Crucifixion while the rocky terrain mirrors the Mount of Calvary. The terrific trio who at present hail Christ glory will soon falter in the garden of Gethsemane. They who shield their faces from his beauty would soon ‘hide their faces’ from his disfigured lowliness and ugliness. And yet the despised death on the Cross was not the end!
The luminous demeanour of Jesus in the painting bears witness to His resurrection while the rock cut earth prefigures His rising from the tomb. Thus the story on the Mount serves as a potent prelude to Christ’s journey from the Transfiguration to the Crucifixion and from Golgotha to Glory!
Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum
The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557