holy days

 ... God in the Arts - exploring symbols of the Christian faith

Editor:  The Revd Michael Burgess continues his series on God in the Arts with a look at ‘The Transfiguration’ by Fra Angelico. It is found in the Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence.

We behold the glory

TQ – Tingle Quotient – is the name given to those things that can produce a tingle down the spine or a frisson of excitement. It could be a piece of music or the sight of an evening sunset at sea or a newborn babe. We look, we hear, and what we look at or hear evokes a sense of wonder and amazement that has an almost physical effect on us. Something sublime unfolds before us producing delight and awe: a hint of glory that leads us to wonder and even to worship.

The monk who lived in cell no 6 at the Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence must have felt that when he entered his room and saw for the first time the fresco of the Transfiguration that Fra Angelico had painted. I am sure the sight would have stopped him in his tracks, just as Peter, James and John were stopped in their tracks as they beheld their Lord transfigured before them on the mount.

From 1436 Fra Angelico painted a whole series of frescoes for the convent from the High Altar to the Chapter House to the cells of the monks. Here in cell no 6 there is a restrained simplicity and directness about the Transfiguration. One of the three disciples looks out towards us, while the other two are caught up in wonder and awe as they look on Jesus with the faces of Moses and Elijah on either side.

Here Fra Angelico is not seeking to impress a wealthy patron: he is providing a focus for devotion and prayer for the monks of his community. The scene speaks to us of that sense of awe and reverence. On 6th August the feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated. The Gospel accounts relate that special moment of revelation to the inner group of disciples. The glory shown to them evoked a sense of wonder and marvel, but also a sense of loss. For the glory proved elusive and just out of human reach. The moment of revelation passed, and the disciples had to go down the mount again to meet the crying needs of the world, all but forgotten when they were with their Lord on the mountain top.

The monk in his cell would ponder the glory of Fra Angelico’s fresco, knowing that he would be called from his cell to take up his monastic duties. But the painting would go with him to sustain and nurture his life. It is the same with us: we have moments of glory. But they pass, and we must return to our daily lives. As we look on this painting, we sense that glory and wonder which can sustain us through life. As Thomas Jones says in his poem on this episode:             

Like a pearl we hold
Close to our hearts
what we have heard and seen.