I’m going to attempt to tie together a few threads this morning, as I often do in these pages, and see whether the whole thing hangs together. This past Sunday, Christians celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration, while today is the Feast of St. Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers. Combine these two commemorations with a fascinating new archaeological discovery that will prove of great interest to Christians everywhere, and throw in some great works of art, and away we go. Bear with me, gentle reader.
On the news-y side of things, archaeologists in Israel believe they have found the site of Bethsaida the hometown of the Apostles St. Peter, St. Andrew, and St. Philip, near the Sea of Galilee. The Roman city of Julias was built on the site of Bethsaida, and is mentioned by the Roman historian Josephus, but its location was lost down the centuries. With the remains of a Roman bath house and other substantial finds at the dig site, scientists are now convinced that they have found the right spot. As of right now, the public isn’t allowed to visit the dig, but no doubt when it becomes accessible this site is going to be added to the pilgrimage trail for Christians visiting Galilee.
Bethsaida’s most famous resident, St. Peter, plays a major role in the Feast of the Transfiguration, which Christians celebrated this past Sunday. As retold in the Gospels, Jesus, accompanied by the Apostles Peter, James, and John, climbed up a mountain and revealed His true nature to these three closest followers, in a vision which was accompanied by the appearances of Moses and Elijah with the transfigured Christ. In St. Matthew’s recounting of the event, we read the following:
After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone. As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
St. Matthew 17:1-9
The Transfiguration has been portrayed many times in art, perhaps most famously in Raphael’s final masterpiece, left unfinished at his untimely death in 1520 at the age of 37. The depiction of Jesus in this painting, in particular, has proven to be hugely influential not only in art, but in popular culture. In Raphael’s interpretation of the event, St. Peter is clothed in blue and yellow, shown below and to the right of the transfigured Jesus. He has just finished offering to put up three tents, for Christ and the two Prophets, and is now lying on the ground and twisting his upper body so as to cover his face from the blinding light:
This beautiful but rather complex depiction of the Transfiguration contrasts sharply with the simpler and perhaps more profound one rendered by Blessed Fra Angelico, the Dominican friar and Early Renaissance artist. This particular fresco was painted on the wall of a cell in the Dominican friary of San Marco, outside of Florence, sometime between 1440-1442. In his more solemn and minimalist imagining of this event, Fra Angelico’s image is one of great stillness, rather than one of movement and energy.
Like Raphael, Fra Angelico places St. Peter to the lower right of Jesus, and the Prince of the Apostles still shields his eyes from the celestial light, but this time we see him is in a more upright position: unlike the other two Apostles, St. Peter is trying to see what is happening. Notice also that on the extreme left and right of the picture we see two individuals who were not present at the Transfiguration, but who are shown meditating about it: the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, and St. Dominic, whose feast day we celebrate today. The presence of such individuals is anachronistic, historically speaking, but was quite common in sacred art. It often provided a context for placement of the work of art – such as in this case, inside a Dominican friary, and bearing in mind that Dominicans have a particular devotion to the Blessed Mother.
While the individual focus of not only these works of art, but of course the Gospel retellings themselves, is Jesus, they also give us an opportunity to think about the character of St. Peter, and how he grew so far beyond what could reasonably have been expected of someone hailing from Galilee. I was particularly struck by this change in his character when reading-listening to the 2nd reading from Mass on Sunday, which was taken from the Second Letter of St. Peter. It personalizes the Transfiguration in a way which shows us that St. Peter is no longer that provincial fisherman, nor merely an easily-frightened follower of a maybe-Messiah, but a figure of authority, strength, and conviction for the first Christians to turn to:
We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that unique declaration came to him from the majestic glory, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain. Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
2 St. Peter 1:16-19
This absolutely explicit defense of the reality of the Transfiguration – and indeed, of the Resurrection, for St. Peter and the other two were enjoined by Christ not to tell anyone about the Transfiguration until after His Resurrection – shows us how far St. Peter has come. He may have started life uneventfully enough, in small-town Bethsaida, but by the time the scribe is writing this final letter to his dictation, St. Peter is imprisoned in Rome, and is aware that he is about to die because of his faith in Christ. “Therefore, I will always remind you of these things,” he notes, “even though you already know them and are established in the truth you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this ‘tent,’ to stir you up by a reminder, since I know that I will soon have to put it aside, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has shown me I shall also make every effort to enable you always to remember these things after my departure.” (2 St. Peter 1:12-15)
With a last look at the two paintings we considered today, then, and in the light of the discovery of St. Peter’s birthplace, perhaps the takeaway for us today is one of courage. No matter what forgotten town we start from, and no matter where we find ourselves – in the cell of a monastery, the cell of a prison, or a cell of our own construction – we must be brave in preaching what we know to be true. We may not have the opportunity or indeed the calling to go out and preach the Gospel fearlessly to great crowds, as St. Peter and St. Dominic did. Yet in our own small lives and small towns, we can preach with equal bravery, when we stand up for the things that we know are right in spite of both ourselves, and the rest of the world standing in opposition to us.