(Raphael, “The Transfiguration”, 1516-1520)
The Story of the Transfiguration of the Lord
All three Synoptic Gospels tell the story of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-9; Luke 9:28-36). With remarkable agreement, all three place the event shortly after Peter’s confession of faith that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus’ first prediction of his passion and death. Peter’s eagerness to erect tents or booths on the spot suggests it occurred during the week-long Jewish Feast of Booths in the fall.
According to Scripture scholars, in spite of the texts’ agreement it is difficult to reconstruct the disciples’ experience, because the Gospels draw heavily on Old Testament descriptions of the Sinai encounter with God, and prophetic visions of the Son of Man. Certainly Peter, James, and John had a glimpse of Jesus’ divinity strong enough to strike fear into their hearts. Such an experience defies description, so they drew on familiar religious language to describe it. And certainly Jesus warned them that his glory and his suffering were to be inextricably connected—a theme John highlights throughout his Gospel.
Tradition names Mount Tabor as the site of the revelation. A church first raised there in the fourth century was dedicated on August 6. A feast in honor of the Transfiguration was celebrated in the Eastern Church from about that time. Western observance began in some localities about the eighth century.
On July 22, 1456, Crusaders defeated the Turks at Belgrade. News of the victory reached Rome on August 6, and Pope Callistus III placed the feast on the Roman calendar the following year.
One of the Transfiguration accounts is read on the second Sunday of Lent each year, proclaiming Christ’s divinity to the Elect and baptized alike. The Gospel for the first Sunday of Lent, by contrast, is the story of the temptation in the desert—affirmation of Jesus’ humanity. The two distinct but inseparable natures of the Lord were a subject of much theological argument at the beginning of the Church’s history; it remains hard for believers to grasp.
Two scenes from the Gospel of Matthew are depicted in Raphael’s Transfiguration:
- At the top, Christ has climbed Mount Tabor with the Apostles, and there he is transfigured—appearing in his glorified body, flanked by Moses (representing the Law) and Elijah (representing the Prophets).
- But in the lower part of the painting, the Apostles are struggling to heal a sick child. Only when the transfigured Christ appears in their midst is the child healed.