OF all the passages in the Bible that relate to beauty as a window onto the divine, the most neglected, and most important, is the story known as the Transfiguration. On the surface, nothing about this episode speaks directly about art, beauty, or the imagination. But placed in the right context, one can see in this passage a spiritual aesthetic. I have found such a context in the writings of the late Hans Urs von Balthasar, arguably the greatest Catholic theologian of the twentieth century. Von Balthasar believed that the word “glory” in the Bible is synonymous with the beauty of God. Of the three transcendental attributes of God—truth, goodness, and beauty—von Balthasar held that beauty is the least obscured by our fallen nature, and thus provides us with the clearest path to the Beatific Vision.
According to von Balthasar, the essential starting point for the human encounter with the divine is a moment of aesthetic perception, that glimpse of radiance, mystery, and meaning we see in a work of art or in the natural world.
In the context of von Balthasar’s theology, the seemingly straightforward story of the Transfiguration takes on new twists; like a parable, it is full of paradox and implicit challenges to our moral and spiritual inertia. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to the mountain to pray. There his countenance is altered and his garments shine with a blinding light. At his side appear Moses and Elijah. Luke’s gospel continues the story:
But Peter and they that were with him were heavy with sleep: and when they were awake, they saw his glory, and the two men that stood with him. And it came to pass, as they departed from him, Peter said unto Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias [Elijah]: not knowing what he said. While he thus spake, there came a cloud, and overshadowed them: and they feared as they entered into the cloud. And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him. And when the voice was past, Jesus was found alone.
The Transfiguration hearkens back to Moses’ own encounter with the divine in the form of the burning bush, and it looks forward to the mysterious post-Resurrection body of Jesus. In each instance, glory is experienced as a transformation that does not consume or destroy what is being transformed. The ordinary becomes extraordinary without becoming something wholly other.
At this point, it’s easy to see why the narrative offers numerous analogies to art and beauty. Thomas Aquinas defined beauty as the splendor of form, the flash of radiance that is at once intensely pleasurable and filled with meaning. In the Transfiguration, the burning light that once appeared to Moses in the bush now pulses from Jesus himself, revealing him as the God-man, the icon of the Father. Beauty and meaning embrace.
Of course, it’s when we turn to the disciples and their reactions that the story begins to take on elements of both comedy and pathos. Heavy with sleep, their senses dulled, the disciples are not prepared for this sudden blast of cosmic radiation. Peter, the patron saint of all those who make the right mistakes, tries to capture and hold on to this manifestation of divine presence, not knowing that we cannot contain such mystery, that to do so would only lead to distortion and arrogant system-building. This moment offers Luke the opportunity to write one of the drollest lines in the Bible, as he describes Peter as having spoken, “not knowing what he said.”
As if to emphasize the paradoxical tension between presence and absence, what is understood and what is only seen through a glass darkly, a cloud descends on the mountain. Out of this “cloud of unknowing” (to borrow the title of a medieval mystical treatise), meaning emerges as something underwritten only by God’s own voice and authority. So it must always be: beauty comes and goes in the blink of an eye, sovereign but elusive. In much the same way, after the Resurrection, Jesus will appear—and disappear—leaving his disciples reeling, but perhaps not quite as sleepy as they once were.
Some of the early Church fathers held that in the Transfiguration it was the disciples who changed, not Christ. Because their perception grew sharper, they were able to behold Christ as he truly is.
At its best, art transfigures the world around us for a brief time, strives to let the radiance of truth, goodness, and beauty flash out for an instant. Art wakes us up, trains our perceptions, and reminds us that when we try to build rigid structures around presence we inevitably lose what we attempt to keep. The purpose of art is not to strand us in an alternate world, but to return us to the realm of the ordinary, only with new eyes. After the light had dimmed and the cloud had dispersed, the disciples found Jesus alone. Seeing their bewilderment, he must have had compassion on them. He must also have known that, though the disciples were temporarily blinded by the light, an image had been imprinted on their hearts that would never be erased.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.