Father Loukas of Xenophontos, Icon of the Transfiguration of Christ
This icon depicts the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, and Luke 9:28-36). Christ stands in the center, robed in a garment that is whiter than snow and surrounded by glory. His right hand is raised in blessing, while his left hand clutches a scroll. Rays shine forth from a complex areola of uncreated light behind Christ and strike the witnesses present. The prophets Moses, on Christ’s left with the Tablets of the Law, and Elijah, on Christ’s right, gesture toward him from adjacent peaks (Mount Sinai). The apostles Peter, John, and James have abandoned their sandals as they prostrate themselves on the holy ground at Christ’s feet, stunned by vision of the glorified Christ.
Several iconographic details suggest the icon’s affirmation and repetition of hesychastic Transfiguration imagery. Central to Gregory of Palamas’ hesychast theology1 is the doctrine of uncreated light, depicted in the icon with what scholars have called an hesychastic mandorla.2 With clear Trinitarian reference, its complex arrangement and coloration also reflect the experience of divinity on Mount Tabor: The Transfiguration is a vision of the invisible and comprehension of the incomprehensible. The blue color of the mandorla, which darkens toward the middle, depicts this paradox. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite’s apophatic theology calls the divine light a “luminous darkness.”3 The use of dark blue color is associated with the unknowable darkness of God’s essence, which is hidden by the profusion of light.
Likewise, the tripartate mountain emphasizes hesychast differentiation between the essence of God, hidden in darkness on Mount Sinai, and his energies, revealed in the uncreated light on Mount Tabor. Similar to the superimposed figures of the mandorla, the mountains are one unity that join at the base. As a “visual assimilation of Tabor into Sinai,”4 the iconography emphasizes hesychastic belief in the full revelation of Christ’s divintiy on Mount Tabor. The position of the apostles and their illuminated clothing confirm the transformative power of such an experience of divine energies.
The format and composition of Father Loukas’ icon indicate that it was likely modeled on a miniature of the Transfiguration (ca. 1370-1375) in the fourteenth century Palaeologan Byzantine codex (Cod. Par. Gr. 1242) at the Bibliothéque Nationale de France (Fig. 1).5 The figures of Christ, the prophets, and the apostles are in keeping with the elongated proportions and swelling of the middle that were common during the Palaeologan period. In this respect, it is also closely related to several sixteenth century Athonite predecessors, including the Stavronikita Transfiguration (Fig. 2) and the Pantokrator Transfiguration (Fig. 3), both attributed to Theophanes the Cretan and tied to the same codex.6 The iconographic peculiarities of the codex Transfiguration entered 16th-century art by way of the Cretan School and spread to the rest of the Orthodox world.7
Alfeyev, Hilarion “God in the Works of the Eastern Church Fathers,” in Orthodox Christianity: Volume II Doctrine and Teaching of the Orthodox Church, trans. Andrew Smith, Yonkers NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2012.
Andreopoulos, Andreas Metamophosis: The Transfiguration in the Byzantine Theology and Iconography Crestwood NJ: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005.
Dionysius the Areopagite, “On Divine Names,” in The Works of Dionysius Areopagite, part 1, trans. John Parker, London: James Parker & Co., 1897.
Drpic, Ivan. “Art, Hesychasm, and Visual Exegesis: Parisinus Graecus 1242 Revisited,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 62 (2008): 217-47.
Galavaris, George. “Aspects of Book Illumination on Mount Athos,” Diethnes Sumposio Buzantinê Makedonia, 324-1420, Thessalonikê 29-31 Oktôbriou 1992. Athens, 1995, 91-103.
Karakatsanis, Athanasios, ed., Treasures of Mount Athos Thessaloniki, Museum of Byzantine Culture, 1997.
Krausmüller, D. “The Rise of Hesychasm,” in The Cambridge History of Christianity, vol. 5, ed. M. Angold, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Patterson, James. “Hesychastic Thought as Revealed in Byzantine, Greek and Romanian Church Frescoes: A Theory of Origin and Diffusion,” Révue des Etudes Sud-Est Européennes 16 (1978): 663-70.
1For an introduction to hesychasm in the Eastern Orthodox Church, see Krausmüller(2006), 101-126 and Alfeyev (2012), 111-179.
2For the iconography and history of the hesychastic mandorla see Patterson (1978), 663-670 and Andreopoulos (2005).
3Dionysius the Areopagite, 1-36.
4Drpic (2008), 232.
5Galavaris (1995), fig. 224.
6Karakatsanis, ed. Treasures of Mount Athos (1997), fig. 2.62, 2.74.