The cover of the month

The Fullness of Revelation by Pierre-Marie Dumont

The medieval town of San Gimignano, equidistant from Florence and Siena, is worth the trip especially since it is less inundated by tourists than its famous neighbors. Among its many artistic treasures, the collegiate Church of Saint Mary of the Assumption, erected in the 12th century, is remarkable, particularly for the frescos that adorn its walls. Among them we find the Transfiguration that graces the cover of this issue of Magnificat. For a long time this work, which can be dated to around 1330–1345, was attributed to Barna da Siena, but today specialists agree that the painter remains obscure. Whoever the artist was, he was stylistically a follower of Giotto (1267–1337), and perhaps close to the studio of Lippo Memmi (1291–1356), who executed a number of the other Stories of the New Testament that decorate the Basilica. 

At the top of Mount Tabor, which is stylized according to the Byzantine conventions, the transfigured Jesus has become luminous. In his left hand he carries the Gospel book and in his right hand he makes the sign of the Magister, the Master who alone is qualified to teach the Divine Word and will finally be the Supreme Judge. In the early years of Christian iconography, this gesture was reserved for the depiction of the Logos (the Word). The transfigured Jesus is “contained” in an almond-shaped mandorla, whose rays seem to emanate from him (the golden light) and at the same time to exist by themselves in the background (the green light). This mandorla manifests the divine glory as it proceeds from the Father and the Son. 

To Jesus’ right appears Moses, the lawgiver of the People of God, and to his left Elijah, the great prophet who was the restorer of Israel. Elijah’s robe is green, the color of asceticism. The two Old Testament figures are conspicuously turned toward Jesus in an attitude of devotion, to show clearly that the way prepared by the Old Covenant leads to Jesus, the Anointed One of God. In the lower part of the scene, Saint Peter, Saint John, and Saint James wear clothing of different colors, again according to the conventions of Byzantine icons. The posture of the last-mentioned two apostles shows that they are overwhelmed. As for Saint Peter, his hands folded on his chest and his suppliant attitude indicate that he is offering to set up three tents for Jesus so as to prolong the supernatural delight. “He did not know what he was saying,” the Evangelist Luke comments. And behold, the voice of God the Father proclaims: “This is my Son, my Beloved.” And it commands: “Listen to him!” 

But why do Moses and Elijah disappear as soon as the Father pronounces these words? The answer is given to us by the beginning of the Letter to the Hebrews (1:1-4): 

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the ages. He reflects the glory of God, and bears the very stamp of his nature…. 

“Listen to him!” Since the Law and the Prophets have accomplished their missions, they step back—not because they disappear, but rather because they merge into the reality which they prefigured. “Listen to him!” says the Father: the Law and the Prophets then have to “yield the Word to Jesus,” as Bossuet puts it. The eloquent 17th-century French bishop, nicknamed “the Eagle of Meaux,” concluded from this that from now on, in the Christian dispensation, the only permissible preaching is the kind that lets us hear “the word of the Son of God himself.” 

“Listen to him!” To him alone.

Pierre-Marie Dumont

Transfiguration of Christ, attributed to Barna da Siena (active from 1330 to 1350), Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta, San Gimignano, Italy. © Bridgeman Images.