Mark 9:2-9 (NRSV)
2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
I’ve been attending an art history course recently, and of course it’s all religious art. Religious subjects were the only ones considered worthy of the time, effort and expense until relatively recently. A shadow cast, a symbolic object going almost unnoticed, a colour of some meaning… the works are all deep theological reflections as well as examples of artistic skill. It’s an amazing way to conduct a study of scripture because it forces you to slow right down and appreciate all the meaning and emotion of one split second of Jesus’ life frozen in time.
For an artist, it is the scarcity of detail that makes scripture an exciting subject. God invites us to project our own understanding and experience onto the narrative. That is how the Scriptures are at once objective, speaking truth to all, and also subjective, whispering what we each need to hear from God to our thirsty souls.
It made me wonder how I would compose this scene of the Transfiguration and what moment I would choose. How about capturing a scene where Jesus and his disciples are sweating their way up the mountain path? There’s no detail about this in the Gospels. If I painted them chatting and joking as they clambered up the mountainside or sitting on rocks in jovial conversation it would remind us of the great contrast between Jesus the Friend and Jesus Transfigured, shining with glory. Or the scene could be composed to show how the three were keenly aware that this was Jesus’ preferred method of escaping the masses and how honoured they felt to be taken on retreat with him. They could be silently plodding along behind Jesus with a teeny, tiny crowd at the foot of the hill in the distance behind.
What about a scene when they reach the top, before Jesus is transfigured? Elsewhere in the gospels it says the disciples slept, so perhaps I would have them sprawled on the ground as Jesus’ face begins to shine; a foreshadowing of the Garden of Gethsemane. He would be surrounded by his closest friends and experiencing something of the loneliness he will feel when he is abandoned. However, there is something more desolate as we realise that a constant part of his human experience was to feel lonelier in glory than any human could in their insignificance. Or perhaps, like some early Christians who would only have had their hands on Mark’s gospel, I would not imagine any sleeping in my scene. Maybe one of his best friends would even reach out a concerned hand to touch Jesus as he began to transform? The hand in that painting would ask the question, can we humans offer comfort and consolation to the God of the universe?
Maybe we could move away from floating Renaissance Moseses (Mosi?!) and Elijahs in the front and centre? Call me an anarchist, but I’m more interested in the disciples. I know that it is enormously significant that the tradition of the Law and the Prophets has now been submitted to Jesus, but I would be interested to try and paint Peter, James and John at this point. Could we compose something that would convey their feelings? In a short time frame they have moved from being chosen to be three apart from the rest to now feeling further away than ever from Jesus. Maybe their frightened, confused faces in shadow could be painted in focus while Jesus’ shining face illuminates the two prophets in the background?
Why focus on the disciples? Because as Peter himself says, “it is good” that they are there. His first tent-building suggestion is comically stupid. That is because he has no idea why they are there. It was a big deal to be chosen to go up that mountain with Jesus but now, I expect, they feel nothing but confusion and inadequacy. But the same Father who spoke at Jesus’ baptism speaks again on the mountain. Only this time, instead of saying, “You are my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” he says, “This is my Beloved Son, listen to him.” This speech is not addressed to Jesus. There would have been no one to hear that if three idiot disciples had not followed Jesus up there.
A frozen moment in these few verses has so much to teach us about following Jesus, spending time away on a mountain, friendship with God, the paradoxical nearness of farness of him that we must keep re-evaluating in our own experience, the Lordship of Jesus over all the Prophets and Law we meet in Scripture, and the call on our lives to listen to the Beloved Son above all other voices in this world. I would encourage you to let your paintbrushes, real or imaginary, draw you deeper into all of this.
Emma Rothwell currently divides her time between the Church of Ireland Dioceses of Meath & Kildare where she is the Diocesan Youth and Children’s Officer and Wilson’s Hospital School where she is the School Chaplain.