Transfiguration of Christ Icon by Franciscan Sister Kathleen Murphy
Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity Sister Kathleen Murphy reflects on her Transfiguration of Christ icon that she wrote in a recent summer workshop at Silver Lake College of the Holy Family, Manitowoc, WI .
I shall know the fullness of joy when I see your face, O Lord; fulfillment and endless peace in your presence. (Liturgy of the Hours)
“Seeing” the face of God is the heart of the iconographic tradition. Many are the scenarios in Sacred Scripture that deal with seeing the face of God. Yet lives were lost and priceless art destroyed over the question of depicting images of the Divine. The icon is to take us into the world of the spirit, where we can experience the transforming power of God. John Baggley, in Doors of Perception, states, “The icon is a way in to the human heart—our own, but also the heart of that transfigured humanity that we see in Christ.”
Many icons speak to me of beauty, mystery, and holiness, so choosing a subject for an icon proved challenging. My first desire was to find an image expressing the richness of the cultures that I have been privileged to experience. It seemed this would result in a visually complicated icon. In looking at examples of ancient and contemporary works, I kept coming across the many depictions of the Transfiguration of Christ. This struck a chord with me at last! My group title is Reflections of the Son and we always claimed a special tie to the story of the Transfiguration. The call to be truly transformed, if heeded, ends in becoming a true reflection of Jesus, the Son.
The icon of the Transfiguration also fit with the cultural piece that I wanted to include. Patrick Comerford, an Anglican blogger writes, “ Saint Paul uses the Greek word for Transfiguration, metamorphosis, when he describes how the Christian is to be transfigured, transformed, into the image of Christ. Transfiguration is a profound change, by God, in Christ, through the Spirit. And so, the Transfiguration reveals to us our ultimate destiny as Christians, the ultimate destiny of all people and all creation to be transformed and glorified by the majestic splendor of God himself.” The icon of the Transfiguration would express for me the hope that all peoples and all cultures would one day be transformed from their fractured distances to a unity in the Body of Christ.
The Transfiguration, I discovered, is a favored subject of iconographers. After viewing many versions, I settled on a Russian rendering from the Novgorod school. The face of Christ is simple and approachable. There is a certain grace in the flow of his garments and the gesture of his hand in blessing. Most of all I was attracted by the colors used by the artist. I usually think of gold and yellow and orange and white as colors of the blazing light of the Transfigured Christ. Yet, here are greens enriched by gold. Green generally symbolizes natural living things. It is the color of hope and eternal renovation. This is a perfect fit for the message of the hoped-for transfiguration of all peoples. Also, this particular representation of the mandorla spoke to me. The circular background expresses the all inclusive glory of God. The circle draws all in to the center which is the presence of Jesus while challenging the viewer to do the inner work of prayer. Further, the mandorla is made up of 3 circles. This speaks to me of the many “threes” of the Transfiguration. There is a Trinitarian presence on the mountain top. The voice of the Father speaks of His Beloved Son while the cloud of the Holy Spirit hovers on the heights. The celestial trios of Jesus, Moses and Elijah as well as Peter, James and John, the three favored apostles, also play into the arrangement of threes in the icon.
The hands of Jesus offer more symbolism to ponder. Dionysius of Fourna claims that the fingers in this particular position form the letters IC XC. These are a Greek abbreviation for Jesus Christ. (Doors of Perception, John Baggley) The power of praying the name of Jesus is brought to one’s consciousness in beholding this divine hand. The other hand holds a scroll. This speaks to me of Jesus as The Eternal Word who holds the infinite Wisdom of God.
The face is central in every sense. Jesus is directly facing the beholder and inviting her to enter His presence. The eyes are round giving a gentle appearance. The mouth is small and closed thus eloquently speaking of the silence which leads one to His presence and His transfiguring power.
The gold is traditionally a symbol of the radiant light of God. The touches of gold in Jesus’ garments speak to me of God’s tenderness. He does not overwhelm with his glory, yet He cannot conceal it. The golden rays emanating from the figure of Christ are a reminder that Jesus’ glory is a gift to the whole world and all its peoples. They also speak to me of the reality that God’s graces fall on everyone—the good and the evil, the wise and the foolish, the brown, black, red, yellow and white.
The border holds rich personal symbolism for me. Being a border, it frames the image and the event. In the world of video and film, a frame is one single photo, a still shot. Framing the icon gives the impression of Peter’s desire—“Let’s build some booths and hang onto this glorious moment!” Framing freezes the mystery in silence so that one can truly enter into it. The frame holds one’s eye within and calls the beholder to look deeper and more silently. The basic color of the border is gold. This symbolizes the Kingdom of God wherein all will be transfigured and brought into unity.
The shapes decorating the border each represent a culture that has been part of my life. The red circle is a reminder of the Native American culture. The circular shape holds great meaning among these peoples as it denotes the continuity of life and the fullness of God’s blessings. It is also a reminder of St. Kateri Tekakwitha who suffered the ravages of smallpox. This disease marked by red rash left her blind, but only physically. She saw with ever greater clarity from the eyes of her soul.
The black squares speak to me of St. Damien of Moloka’i and the sensitivity of the Hawaiian culture. Damien was troubled that during Mass, the men of the leper colony insisted on standing outside the church built by his own hands. Slowly he gained their confidence so that they told him that their condition made frequent spitting necessary and they were ashamed to leave Mass on this account. Immediately Damien cut small square holes in the beautiful new floor and inserted coconut shells so that the men could inconspicuously take care of their needs during Mass. The men gratefully entered the church for each Mass and praised God for the loving kindness of Father Damien.
The blue water droplets call to mind the African American culture and the life of St. Josephine Bakhita of Sudan. Born a slave, she eventually found kindness in an Italian family and followed them to their homeland. Here she was introduced to the Catholic faith. She said, “I had experienced Him in my heart without knowing who He was since I was a child. Seeing the sun, the moon and the stars, I said to myself: who could be the Master of these beautiful things? And I felt a great desire to see him, to know him and to pay him homage…”. After her baptism she was often seen kissing the baptismal font and saying: “Here, I became a daughter of God!” The water symbolizes her natural awareness of God present in creation as well as her great joy in the gift of Baptism. It also stands for the faith and innate reverence of the African American culture.
It is my hope that the practice of gazing silently upon this image, of entering into it, will bear fruit in prayer, and will also inspire living that leads to transfiguration. Protopriest Alexander Shargunov summarizes it best as he writes, “Jesus speaks to us of the fact that the world must be transfigured by love, which none of us has within himself, but which He is offering to us. And we understand that the Mount of Transfiguration is always sweeter than the daily service, sweeter than the cross. However, the Mount of Transfiguration is given to us precisely to imbue us with strength for our daily service, to make us capable of following the way of the cross. This is the radiant light with which the Lord wishes to encompass the entire world.”
This is the light that will bring fullness of joy and endless peace in God’s presence!