Francesco Zuccarelli invites us into the Transfiguration of Christ in his painting. Present in the scene are the key characters of the Gospel story: Peter, the bearded elder whose symbolic keys rest on the grass in front of him, John the youngest in the middle of the Apostles, and James, arms thrown upward. Christ himself is luminous in the cloud, flanked by Moses to the left and Elijah to the right—symbols of the Law and the prophets.
The figures tell the story through their expressive gestures. Peter is almost prostrate in adoration, James’s arms are raised in praise, and John rests in a pious bow. Zuccarelli offer three versions here of what a person’s natural response might be to such an amazing experience of the divine. Christ’s own gesture is one of openness, embrace, and ascent. He is giving himself fully to his Father with luminous and serene expression. Moses and Elijah are the steadiest figures of the scene—figures of heavenly transcendence breaking in to our reality with an otherworldly centeredness and poise.
As if to further emphasize the encounter between heaven and earth, Zuccarelli pays great attention to the natural landscape in which these figures are situated. The careful detail of the trees and plants, the rolling landscape, and the building and pastoral scene in the distance all communicate to the viewer the importance of the natural world as the context in which this manifestation of the divine has taken place. Surrounding the key figures of the story, there is a general sacramentality to the created world; this too is a part of communicating the presence of God.
The most important element of this is the cloud—a common element of nature, which here becomes the vehicle that both reveals and conceals a glimpse of heaven. The cloud is heavy, with darker edges on the outside, and it lightens toward the center. It has a dimensionality to it, as if its center is a portal, an opening that invites us into an ever-brightening depth. Clouds normally reflect the light, but this one seems to generate its own—or it holds within itself a source of immense brightness, which tells us, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Bringing together heaven and earth, the Transfiguration is a comprehensive experience in which the divine voice addresses the human heart through all of its senses.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans.