The Uncreated Light: an iconographical study of the Transfiguration in the Eastern Church, by Solrunn Nes. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2007.
A Norwegian Roman Catholic iconographer? But of course! In this reworking of her University of Bergen master's thesis in art history, Solrunn Nes gives us not only artistic analysis but a very useful and concise review of the Eastern Christian view of salvation history.
The Transfiguration has always occupied a position of primary importance in Eastern spirituality, and its feastday on August 6 is celebrated with great solemnity. By contrast, it was a minor liturgical event in the pre-Vatican II Catholicism of my boyhood. Jesus and some apostles went up a mountain and something weird happened to Jesus. After the Council, the significance of the Transfiguration had nowhere to go but down.
Nes' main point is that in Jesus divinity and humanity have been fully united. The light emanating from Jesus during the Transfiguration is his divinity, uncreated light pervading his human flesh. This divine light--understood as a real manifestation of God and not a created thing--is not limited to Jesus. Human beings who have attained great intimacy with God sometimes manifest the uncreated light as well. This is the traditional Eastern interpretation of the glow radiating from Moses' face after he came down from Mt Sinai. St Simeon the New Theologian (949-1022) manifested this light several times and (atypically) wrote about it. Perhaps the best-known account of this phenomenon is the description left by the 19th century Russian Motovilov of his meeting with his spiritual father St Seraphim of Sarov.
The artistic depictions discussed by Nes include two mosaics (from St Catherine's monastery in Sinai and Sant Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna), an Ottonian manuscript illumination (10th century imperial Germany) and wood-panel icons from medieval Russia. These latter are by Theophane the Greek (reproduced above) and Andrei Rublev.
The theological points of which these pieces are artistic expressions can be summarized as follows:
- God became human so that human beings can become Godlike.
- The light manifested by Jesus during the Transfiguration prefigured the light he manifested when he rose from the dead. That light, in turn, prefigures the light we will manifest at the general resurrection at the end of time.
- The general resurrection is not limited to humans but will include the entire cosmos, which will also glow with the uncreated light.
A very valuable part of Nes' book is the 51-page appendix which is a compendium of biblical and patristic texts dealing with the uncreated light.
You might also be interested in another book by Nes, The Mystical Language of Icons, also published by Eerdmans (2004). This book contains many full-color reproductions of her icons.