A reflection from the Greek tradition on the Transfiguration by Raphael
In anticipation of the upcoming Feast of the Transfiguration, 6 August, might we recall how the Divine and Uncreated Light revealed on Mount Thabor at the Transfiguration of Jesus is witnessed in art. The Italian master Raphael has depicted the glory of God's Light in his masterwork Transfiguration, executed for Cardinal Giulio de Medici (Pope Clement VII) in 1516 though it remained incomplete at the time of Raphael's death in 1520.
Faithful to the Synoptic Gospels, Raphael has depicted that spectacular moment on Mount Thabor when Jesus took the Apostles Peter, John and James up to pray and they witnessed his Transfiguration (cf. Mt 17:1-6, Mk 9:1-8, Lk 9:28-36). With utmost finesse Raphael has portrayed the scriptural and patristic basis of what it means to be transfigured, an episode presenting one of the most impenetrable instances of the Christian vision of beauty: "his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light" (Mt 17:2); "his countenance was altered and His raiment became a radiant white" (Lk 9:29). The Greek Fathers describe this light as "uncreated divinity" (Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 40:6); "a superluminous and theurgic ray" (Dionysius the Areopagite, De cael. hier. 2); "the very light beyond intellection and unapproachable, the heavenly and infinite light, out of time and eternal, the light that makes immortality shine forth, the light which deifies those who contemplate it" (Gregory Palamas, Triads III. iii. 9)
Perhaps better than any other artistic achievement Raphael has captured this Uncreated Light of Mount Thabor understood by the Greek Fathers as a light from God that lives in the human soul: "the very formless form of the divine loveliness, which deifies man and makes him worthy of personal converse with God" (Triads III.iii.9). Akin to the notion of sanctifying grace in the Western tradition, the Greek Fathers speak of it as: "the divine grace of the suprasensible light" (Triads I.iii.23, cf. Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen, Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus, Andrew of Crete, Symeon the New Theologian and Dionysius the Areopagite).
Indeed Thabor's light is a divine and supernatural light: "without beginning or end... neither sensible nor intelligible in the proper sense" (Triads III.ii.14), nevertheless it would be interesting to know what the Greek Fathers might have written about Raphael's light in his masterpiece Transfiguration. Palamas made great efforts to substantiate how created entities participate in the Divine Being according to their proper mode. He confirms that such entities are in fact divinized: "living and divine beings" (Triads III.ii.13). Raphael's light may provide a proof in pictorial form of Palamas' supposition that the eternal glory of God is in fact participle: "for that which in God is visible in some way, is also participle" (ibid.). The Greek Father proposes that the light of God at Christ's Transfiguration was visible to the Apostles not only spiritually but physically, a light "clearly perceptible to the senses" (Triads I.iii). From the authority of Dionysius the Areopagite, Palamas elucidates: "There is a glory of God beyond participation, an eternal reality, and thus identical to the divine essence; and there is a participle glory, different from this essence and not eternal, for the universal Cause has given it existence" (Triads III.ii.13).
Perhaps Raphael's created light, by the creative act of his artistic genius, is comparable to the light of that "participle glory". In fact, many of the critics of the 16th century identify the metaphysical property of art with an intrinsic religiosity such as grace, a divine quality emerging from the artwork, giving the impression that the work alone does not produce this splendid light, but something happens through it. Leon Battista Alberti nominates this quality as "beauty" and explains that on account of it the painting: "contains within itself the divine power" [tiene in sé la forza divina] (De Pictura lib. II, 25). The contemporary critic George Steiner, who affirms the ingress to the mystery of God through art, identifies this property as "metaphysical-religious" — "an irreducible otherness [...] a presence of radiant opacity" (Real Presences, UCP, 210-1); and M. H. Abrams describes it as a recognizable light as of the splendor and power of the Spirit: "God's free gift [...] a supernatural je ne sais quois that one can neither explain nor comprehend" (The Mirror and the Lamp, Norton, 194). Perhaps even Maritain alludes to it when he speaks of a "completely free element, a sort of grace" — the "suprahuman, divine or magic or dionysian power inherent in art" (Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, chap. 1). One might audaciously suggest that
this "participle glory" is in fact "the eternal glory of God" as the Greek Fathers Palamas and Gregory Nazianzen consider it to be by separating such light from the "imparticiple essence of God".
It is clear that Raphael's light is not "the imparticiple essence of God" however one may affirm that his light is a participation in the "unoriginate and endless rays" of the divine light of Thabor according to the artist's capacity to reflect that light and the observer's capacity to receive it. Through the power of art Raphael has at least transmitted an expression of that divine beauty to the observer, a temporary unveiling of the Son of God's eternal glory.
As the light of Christ's glory on Thabor dazzled the Apostles, so the observer of Raphael's Transfiguration witnesses that Thaborian light through the mystery of pictorial beauty. Thus Raphael's work is a "participle light" that expresses, even if only faintly, the beauty proper to God revealed in Christ. As Christ discloses the beauty of the God who "dwells in unapproachable light" (1 Tim 6:16), Raphael attempts, with the hand of an inspired artist, to present the radiance of the light of Thabor — sensible and created.
Undoubtedly the Greek Fathers would speak well of Raphael's painting as one of the most sublime attempts to capture that same Thaborian light in participle form, created though super-naturalized by the same Uncreated Light, for Raphael has achieved the intersection of God's transcendence and immanence in art and his Transfiguration is the object of vision by which the spiritual power is seen in this life as a sign of hope for the glory of sharing in that same Light hereafter.
Palamas might claim that the vision of light expressed by Raphael could only be the work of God in the artist himself, as if, through the supernatural grace of God, Raphael had transcended his creatureliness, transcended human intellection, as if to become "transcendent to his own self-knowledge", united, even if only momentarily, with that Mystical Light of the Uncreated Glory.
The Greek Fathers also call this Divine Light "enhypostasis" — a type of "Eternally Being Light" that does not elude the gaze of the observer but remains, in the ontological sense, inherent in the glory of God's Spirit yet revealed to the human person. Palamas mentions how it cannot be contemplated as a hypostasis ..., that is, as a "substantive reality" because, strictly speaking, it does not have an essence. It can be contemplated only in a hypostasis, that is, in a personal locus, thus it reveals the glory of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Quite simply, the light of Thabor does not reveal the divine essence fully, but rather the light of God in which all humanity is called to share. God's essence ineffably transcends this light in His essential nature, and even all moments of human transcendence are entirely bypassed by that Thaborian light (cf. Triads III.i.27) . Perhaps best said, using the terminology of the Greek Fathers, as Raphael's reveals through his pictorial medium, the light of Thabor relates not to God's essence but to his energies, to the very life of God — divine grace.
This light, however, like grace, is given only to certain persons who are disposed to receive it: "to those who have transcended themselves with the help of the Spirit" (Triads III,iii.10) . It holds significance for all, nevertheless, and one wonders if Raphael lived in that Uncreated Light, whether he experienced it in order to be able to recreate it in art. To the ordinary observer, unless illuminated by supernatural grace, Raphael's light remains obscure, though by contemplating the mystery behind Raphael's work the inner eye may be purified and begin the process of assimilation to Christ. This is the beginning of transfiguration, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI: "a momentary foretaste of what will constitute the happiness of Paradise" (Angelus, 12 March 2006).
As the Greek Fathers note, and as Raphael's work reveals, transfiguration is not simply an interior experience, it is accessible to human perception and involves the seeing with bodily eyes transfigured by grace (cf. Triads III.i.22). For the Thaborian light, like the light of Raphael's Transfiguration shines forth as a sensible reality penetrating the interior eye of the human soul, analogous to the rays shining forth from the sun penetrating the body.
Perhaps then, in the end, we should be chary to call the light of Raphael's Transfiguration simply symbolic or a simulacrum of the divinity. Though this light is infinitely separated from the nature it symbolizes, yet even so, all symbols at least derive from the nature of what they symbolize.