“There were eight on the mountain, but only six were visible.”
– St Gregory Palamas, Homily on the Transfiguration
Following on from a previous post on the Icon of the Transfiguration, there is more to discover in the icon by looking at who is present, how they are presented, and what this represents.
The Three Apostles
The Three Apostles were specially chosen to witness the Transfiguration, and did so through ascent of the mountain, prayer, and by keeping watch. Why only three Apostles and not all twelve? St Nikolai of Ohrid explains it was not possible to allow Judas, who would betray Christ, to behold the Transfiguration, and that to bring all Twelve Apostles to the top of Mt Tabor except Judas would justify his resentment. St Nikolai also writes “[God] Himself gave the Law through the mouth of Moses: ‘At the mouth of two witnesses or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established’ (Deuteronomy 19:15). Therefore, three witnesses are sufficient.” As to why these three in particular – Peter, James, and John – St Nikolai further states:
These three witnesses represent three main virtues: Peter – Faith, for he was the first to confess his faith in Christ as the Son of God; James – Hope, for, with faith in the promise of Christ, he was the first [Apostle] to lay down his life for the Lord, being slain by the Jews; John – Love, for he reclined on the bosom of the Lord and remained beneath the Cross of the Lord until the end. God is not called the God of many but rather the God of the chosen. “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6).
All three are easily distinguishable: St Peter, white-haired and bearded, is usually shown with hand out-stretched toward the transfigured Christ, as though saying: “Lord it is good for us to be here…” (Matt 17:4); James is brown-haired and bearded; and the younger brother of thunder, John, is a beardless youth, often prostrate at the sight of it all.
One thing to note is that in some icons, the Apostles are deliberately depicted without halos. Firstly, this is not to take attention away from the depiction of Christ shining with uncreated light. Secondly, more importantly, the halo represents the glory of God and the sanctity of the Holy Spirit: this was given to the Apostles dramatically at Pentecost, but not before then. This is often shown in icons by omitting the halos from Christ’s Apostles when they are shown before Pentecost.
The Two Old Testament Righteous
Icons of the Transfiguration show Moses and Elijah (Elias) in profile, bowing towards, and focused on, Jesus Christ: Who stares straight ahead at us. This emphasizes the ancient understanding of why Elijah and Moses appeared at the Transfiguration: They symbolized Christ’s sovereignty – being Divine – over both the Prophets (Elijah) and the Law (Moses) of the Old Testament. It also emphasizes how the Old Testament laws and prophecies all point toward Jesus Christ, just as Elijah and Moses now bow toward Christ in the flesh. Saint Ephraim the Syrian, in his sermon of the feast, explains the significance of Moses and Elijah (Elias) more fully:
He [Christ] led them up the mountain to show them who the Son is and whose he is. Because when he asked them, ‘Whom do men say the Son of man is?’(Matt. 16:13) They said to him, some Elias, others Jeremias, or one of the Prophets. This is why he leads them up the mountain and shows them that he is not Elias, but the God of Elias; again, that he is not Jeremias, but the one who sanctified Jeremias in his mother’s womb;(Jer 1:5) not one of the Prophets, but the Lord of the Prophets, who also sent them.
And there is more that Moses and Elijah represent. St Ephraim continues:
And he shows them that he is the maker of heaven and earth, and that he is Lord of living and dead. For he gave orders to heaven and brought down Elias, and made a sign to the earth and raised up Moses.
Because Moses died and was buried, and because Elijah was taken up as into heaven in a fiery chariot and did not taste death, St Ephraim and other Holy Fathers also interpreted Elijah and Moses’ presence as representing both the living and dead righteous; of “heaven and earth”. But, it is not an apparition of Moses and Elijah that the Apostles see, but the actual men themselves. Therefore it is believed that Moses really was raised from the dead to be on Mt Tabor, and that Elijah was translated from the heavens for the same reason. Medieval icons, therefore, often contain small scenes of Moses rising from a tomb, and Elijah traveling on a cloud – both accompanied by angels, emphasizing that the two are summoned by Christ, and it is God’s power which brings them to Mt Tabor. These are especially common in later Russian icons, but Theophanes the Greek also paints these two scenes in the top corners of his famous icon of the Transfiguration.
The Holy Trinity
Along with the three Apostles and two Prophets we have, in the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ, a manifestation of the Holy Trinity. St Gregory Palamas explains this ancient understanding this way:
There were eight on the mountain, but only six were visible. Three, Peter, James and John, had come up with Jesus, and they saw Moses and Elias standing there and conversing with Him, so altogether there were six of them. However, the Father and the Holy Spirit were invisibly with the Lord: the Father, with His Voice testifying that this was His Beloved Son, and the Holy Spirit shining forth with Him in the radiant cloud. Thus, the six are actually eight, and there is no contradiction regarding the eight.
Depicting the Holy Trinity in Transfiguration Icons when the Father and Holy Spirit were “invisibly present” is a problem overcome by painting three distinct rays of light shining forth from Christ. This is done in many Icons, although other iconographers prefer to paint an eight-pointed star in the mandorla surrounding Christ, the number eight signifying eternity in the Church and in the Old Testament Scriptures alike.
Recognized by the Church as a manifestation of the Holy Trinity, it is for this reason that the Transfiguration is sometimes called a “second Theophany”, the first Theophany being the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan. At both events, all Three Persons of the Holy Trinity are present, and at both the Father uses the same words – “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” – further emphasizing the connection. It is perhaps for this reason that Elijah is always shown on the left, slightly bowed, facing Christ. This is similar to the depiction of John the Baptist in icons of the Baptism of Christ. The similarity between Elijah and St John is surely deliberate, as Christ Himself said of John: And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come(Matt 11:14).
Sermons and writings on the Transfiguration used in this post: