October 3, 2019

Dionysius the Areopagite and the Apse Mosaic of the Transfiguration in Sinai

By Hieromonk Alexander (Golitzin)

Let me conclude this essay by turning to an artifact constructed within two or three decades of the first public mention of the Dionysian corpus. In the mid-sixth century, the same emperor who convoked the colloquium of 532, Justinian I, built a fortress monastery in the Sinai at the foot of Jebel Musa, the by-then traditional site associated with the theophanies of Exodus and, in consequence, already a longtime haunt of Christian ascetics. In the monastery church, imperial artisans assembled several mosaics, including one depicting the Transfiguration. The latter is located in the apse, directly above the altar. Here already, as Jas Elsner has pointed out in a remarkably perceptive essay in his recent book, Art and the Roman Viewer, we find the assemblage in a single glance of the major Dionysian themes: the God-man Christ in light, the altar of the eucharist, the Sinai of Moses' ascent, the Tabor of the Transfiguration, and the suggestions at once of mystical vision in this life open to the monks (and pilgrims) who form the worshipping body, and of the eschaton.

What I should like particularly to focus on, and which Elsner does not cover, is what I take to be elements from our discussion just now of the Epistles, and especially of Epistle III, reflected in the portrayl of Christ in this mosaic -- which, by the way and to the best of my knowledge, is the prototype for all subsequent Orthodox iconography of the Transfiguration. Christ is depicted clothed in brilliant white and gold. Rays shoot out from His Person to strike Elijah and Moses at His right and left, together with the stunned disciples at His feet -- including, as Elsner points out, the figure of Peter, directly below, who is awakening from sleep into mystical vision. With the force of the rays we might also recall the mesembria pointed out by the anonymous Scholiast and certainly presumed in the Christophany to St Paul, as well as the "ray" imagery so generally prominent in the Corpus Dionysiacum. In addition, the mandorla around Christ has a curious feature, also usually reproduced in later Byzantine icons. It is banded. At its outer edge a pale shade, roughly the same hue as the rays, its several rings of color grow increasingly dark as we move inwards until, immediately around the Person of Christ, the innermost ring is a midnight blue verging on black. At least two explanations have been proposed for this feature, both of which have a certain cogency. In one, the blue denotes the color of the firmament beneath God's feet in Exodus 24.10, a text which Evagrius takes up in his portrayal of the azure light of the intellect awaiting the descent of the uncreated light of the Trinity. In the other explanation, the mandorla represents both the bright cloud overshadowing the disciples at the Transfiguration, and the dark cloud on Sinai into which Moses enters. I think both of these apply, but I would go further than Elsner, who stops at the Mystical Theology. In the epistles we saw a certain alternation, especially in Epistles I and V, between dark and light. In Epistle III we met the paradox of Christ's sudden manifestation: light, overpowering, coming forth from the depths of silent divinity and, still, hidden even in the manifestation. The Sinai mosaic strikes me, in short, as a portrayal of the exaiphnes. The latter, with its simultaneous evocation, via Malachi 3.1, of the twin temples of the altar and the heart also matches the image, a depiction of mystical vision sited directly over the table of the eucharist. It is, in fact, the Mystical Theology located at the heart of the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, with both united in the Person of Jesus. Whoever, I think, commissioned that image knew his Dionysius very well, indeed.