The art of transfiguration

Carving of ‘The transfiguration of Christ’, Sieger Köder.

I am very grateful to Revd Julia Lacey who, as you will read below, prompted many of the thoughts in this week’s blog, which definitely has a ‘European’ flavour. This coming Sunday, the Sunday before Lent, is now kept in the Common Worship calendar with a focus on the transfiguration of Christ. This year the selected lectionary Gospel passage comes from the account in the Gospel of Luke, Luke 9.28-36.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

The sculpture illustrating this week’s blog is in the garden in Germany of the mother of Revd Julia Lacey. Julia, who was an ordinand of the Diocese in Europe, sponsored by Holy Trinity Geneva, is now serving her curacy in Chelmsford Diocese. The bronze was carved by the German Roman Catholic priest and artist Sieger Köder who was a personal friend of Julia’s family. Julia tells me that Fr Köder created a very similar image for the tombstone which marks his own grave (he died in 2015).

This carving – and that on the tombstone – depicts the transfiguration of Christ, which is the focus of this week’s lectionary Gospel. But although you can see clearly the figures of Moses and Elijah, and of the three disciples who witnessed the event, you can barely see the figure of Christ himself at all. He appears to be there almost insubstantially,  ‘shadowing’ the upper figure on the right, whom I take to be Elijah. Julia mentions that in the version of the scene on his own tombstone, Fr Köder did not include the figure of Christ at all. As Julia herself described it to me, ‘Jesus is not visible at all – it’s like he has “given way”, literally opening up that connection between glory and glory. ’

Köder these days is probably better known as a painter than a sculptor, and he draws on the theme of the transfiguration in several of his paintings. Probably his best known example is this one which can be viewed via the website of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Utrecht..

What immediately strikes me is the sharp division between the upper and lower halves of the picture, marked out by the very different colours of each part. In the upper part the light emanating from Christ draws Moses and Elijah into a circle, which feels reminiscent of the shape created by the angelic figures in Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity (Hospitality of Abraham). The light however barely reaches down to the lower and lesser part of the picture where the disciples are located. Their eyes remain closed, perhaps this is intended to draw attention to a feature of Luke’s transfiguration narrative (Luke 9.28-36). Luke, unlike Mark and Matthew, specifically mentions that the disciples had been ‘weighed down with sleep.’ (Luke 9.32). What is also notable in this painting, and is reminiscent of his sculptures of the scene, is the way that the light emanating from Christ has almost absorbed him. He is so caught up in this light that the outline of his own body merges into it.

In some ways though I am even more fascinated by another Köder painting of the transfiguration, which forms part of a triptych altarpiece at St. Stephen’s Church, Wasseralfingen, Germany.  Wasseralfingen was Fr Köder’s town of birth so perhaps we can assume that he saw this large scale artwork as his legacy in a special way.

When the triptych is closed it shows two Old Testament scenes (the visit of the angels to Abraham, and the Passover at the time of the Exodus) Abraham with Three Strangers, Passover Dinner, High Altar in St. Stephen`s Church in Wasseralfingen, Germany Stock Image – Image of europe, artistic: 177122663 ( which could be said to foreshadow the life, and perhaps especially the passion, of Jesus Christ.

When the triptych is open, High altar by Sieger Koder in St. Stephen’s church in Wasseralfingen, Germany Stock Photo – Alamy it portrays three resurrection scenes; on the left the Breakfast on the Beach (John 21), on the right Mary in the garden (John 20), and in the middle, the revelation of Jesus to the disciples at Emmaus (Luke 24).

Only… the Emmaus picture isn’t ‘just’ an Emmaus picture, for Fr Köder has brilliantly ‘combined’ it with a depiction of Jesus’ transfiguration. So not only do we see the disciples seated at table, but also above them, what are clearly intended to represent the figures of Moses and Elijah, and between them the form of Jesus is once again barely visible – he is represented as a pillar of light, or a pillar of fire. “Köder bathes him in the colour of blood—of his passion, and of life.” (Victoria Emily Jones)  It is a true instinct that led Köder to make this profound link between the transfiguration and the resurrection of Christ, which is certainly echoed in the Gospels themselves where the transfiguration is a foretaste of the resurrection, and we are told that Jesus instructed the disciples who had been with him on the mountain of transfiguration, ‘to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead’. (Mark 9.9)

(For more detail on this fascinating triptych go to Sieger Koder – Art & Theology ( )

There is a hymn/song by Michael Hare Duke I cherish which also brings together transfiguration and resurrection. I first came across it in the Westcott House hymnbook when I was a tutor at the college in the 1980s. It is singable to the melody ‘O waley, waley’ and because I think the song is too little known (and I am sure that Bishop Hare Duke would have been delighted to have it further shared!) I include the words below:

Each human life has joys to share.
Like wine our lives brim in the cup:
But matched with them are pains to bear,
Rough, broken bread we gather up.

These things which make your life and mine
Were changed by Jesus when he said
His love was flowing in the wine,
His body broken in the bread.

In his new Covenant we live
Transfigured by the Spirit’s breath.
Scarred hands remake the gifts we give,
He fills our life, we die his death.

As he accepts the selves we bring
Our shadowed eyes awake to sight:
The cup becomes a healing spring
Our hands receive his glory’s light.

Like Köder’s pictures and carvings it gives us a sense that for Jesus, and potentially for ourselves, being transfigured means being changed and reshaped to become an open door or a channel to enable God’s light, God’s presence to flow through us. As Julia Lacey puts it above, transfiguration requires us ‘give way’ so that God’s glory may become visible.

One of the best summaries of the meaning of the Gospel story of the transfiguration is that offered by Dorothy Lee: The transfiguration ‘is the meeting-place between human beings and God, between the temporal and the eternal, between past, present and future, between everyday human life – with all its hopes and fears – and the mystery of God.’ (Dorothy Lee, Transfiguration, Continuum, 2004).

Perhaps the best known traditional icon of the transfiguration, by Theophanes the Greek

Here in the Diocese in Europe quite a number of us appreciate and are familiar with the theology and traditions of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. At the heart of the Orthodox understanding of faith is the perception that through physical and material places and times and objects, the light and presence of God can shine, and humanity can meet with divinity: whether we are thinking of a church building , the divine liturgy, or an icon, whose very materiality enables it to become a vehicle of the spiritual. At its core this is also the message of the Gospel story of the transfiguration of Christ, as Dorothy Lee implies. Given such an understanding it is not surprising that in the Orthodox world the theme of transfiguration holds a place in the life of faith that it doesn’t quite seem to have among western Christians. In Eastern Orthodoxy Christ’s transfiguration somehow ‘validates’ the vision of the church building as heaven on earth or the divine liturgy as sharing in the worship of heaven.

So in these difficult days it is significant to remember the story of the envoys sent by Vladimir Prince of Kyiv to Constantinople, who reported back to Vladimir on their visit to the Church of Haghia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in that city: ‘They led us to the place where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or earth, for on earth there is no such vision nor beauty, and we do not know how to describe it; we only know that God dwells among human beings. We cannot forget that beauty’. And as a result Vladimir, Kyiv, and ultimately Russia adopted the Eastern Orthodox expression of the Christian faith.  It is of course little acknowledged in the secular media, and it is certainly not intended as a justification for Russian aggression, but I am sure that the historic role that Kyiv has played in the history and self-understanding of the Russian Orthodox Church must be a factor in current Russian attitudes.

But to return to the transfiguration. Following on from my professional work in the area of interreligious concerns at the World Council of Churches I am currently writing a book on religion and violence. The key thesis that I am exploring is the idea that religion as ‘transfiguration’ offers a profound contrast with religion as ‘fundamentalism’. The writer of Anam Cara, John O’ Donohue describes a healthy spirituality as ‘the art of transfiguration’.  An essential aspect of understanding religion through this lens of transfiguration requires us to be willing to experience deep change within ourselves, and it is only in so far as we are prepared to be changed into the image of Christ, that we have the right to expect and encourage change in others.

To come back once again to Sieger Köder’s artwork and Julia Lacey’s language,  what does it mean to ‘give way’ in order to open up the connection between heaven and earth? The situation in Ukraine is not precisely an example of religiously motivated violence, but it certainly offers an illustration of the way in which religion can exacerbate conflict which may have originated for other reasons. What might the language of transfiguration mean in that context?


George Herbert, poet and priest

I decided that it would get too complicated if I also tried to incorporate reflection on the poet and priest  George Herbert in the comments above, but it is worth drawing your attention to the fact that this coming Sunday is not only the Last Sunday before Lent (‘Transfiguration Sunday’) but is also, as February 27, the feast day of George Herbert. The theme of transfiguration, implicitly even if not explicitly, runs through much of Herbert’s poetry, perhaps above all his much-loved poem (now often used as hymn) ‘The Elixir’.

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.

All may of Thee partake;
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with this tincture—“for Thy sake”—
Will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine;
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.

.This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told

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