The Hymnography and Iconography of the Transfiguration in Hesychast Theology
By Leonidas Pittos
[This is excerpted from a larger unpublished study on Hesychast hermeneutics]
The permeable boundaries between a Byzantine worshiper’s visual and hymnographic experiences of an icon allow for us to explore the interpretation of hymnography as a means of considering Hesychast interpretation of the Orthodox liturgical experience. It is significant that in every case in which he utilizes elements of hymnography, St. Gregory Palamas either ascribed patristic or ecclesiastical authority to the hymnographic text. The source of a liturgical text’s authority in weighing in as proof of truth was its universal acceptance in church practice. Thus, in proving the light the light of the Transfiguration was eternal and thus common to all three persons of the Holy Trinity, Palamas affirms his argument by appealing to church practice:
"This is why we chant in common in the Lord during the annual celebration of the feast: ‘in the manifestation of Your light, we have seen the Father as light and the Spirit as light’, [and] ‘for You bared Your divinity’s hidden rays’. . . That this light was of the essential characteristics [των περι Θεόν ουσιωδώς θεορουμένων], we are firstly taught from [hymns] chanted annually during the feast."
In another instance, Palamas writes:
"[The divine activities] are never created but only their participants are created . . . [for] as you hear chanted in the church—and do not shut your ears to this—‘they saw on Tabor the essential and eternal splendor of God’, and not the glory of God from created things [την απο κτισμάτων δόξαν του Θεού]."
Palamas’ theological point, then, was affirmed in church practice.
The interpretive practices that come to the surface in St. Gregory Palamas’ interpretation of the hymnography of the Transfiguration cluster around two poles: a) the identification of the divine light with the hypostasis of Christ, and b) the affirmation of the saints’ experience of the uncreated light. It is, in addition, in these two themes that Palamas’ interpretive practices converge with the iconographic themes of the Transfiguration.
In icons of the Transfiguration, Christ’s body formed the focal axis of the mandorla’s (the circular disc of light) geometric patterns and dominated its geometric logic. The body of Christ, moreover, formed their point of reference and origin, and, at the same time, the axis of their geometric logic. Indeed, the rays were proper to Divinity as well as enhypostatic (proper to Christ's person) as they ever-unendingly had their existence from Christ’s uncreated hypostasis—from His eternal divine being. At the same time, the iconographic depictions of the apostles’ experience of the Transfiguration of Christ show them in extreme postures and gestures of awe. Thus, the apostles collapse before the awesome vision of the transfigured Christ, “cast down upon the ground, unable to gaze upon the Form that none may see.”
The enhypostatic nature of the light of the Transfiguration lay at the heart of the Hesychasts’ exegesis of the Transfiguration. The light that emanated from Christ was an essential operation of His divinity and had as its source the divine essence of the Word. During the Transfiguration, however, the light was said to emanate from Christ’s face (“and His face became bright as the sun” ) by the evangelists. Drawing on the theology of St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Gregory Palmas maintained that it was by way of the hypostatic union between the divine and the human natures realized in Christ that divine, uncreated grace penetrated and deified created humanity. Thus in Christ’s body, hypostatically united to the Word, the divine energies—the uncreated light of the Transfiguration—penetrate created nature and deify it. It is in this union “according to energy” that the uncreated divine energies become accessible to all those in Christ. The hypostasis of the Incarnate Word thus was the absolute source the light that shown on Tabor. Palamas uses the authority of hymnography throughout his theological works to affirm this very point.
"That this light as of the essential characteristics [των περι Θεόν ουσιωδώς θεορουμένων], we are firstly taught from [hymns] chanted annually during the feast, one a example of which will suffice: ‘The blinding light of Your essential and divine splendor hidden beneath the flesh, oh Christ, You have shown to Your disciples upon the holy mountain, our benefactor, enlightening the disciples that were with You.’"
The light that emanated, then, from the face of Christ during the Transfiguration was “uncreated” (άκτιστον), or divine, and therefore unapproachable and beyond human comprehension. To say anything positive of it was to reduce it to something that it was not. While incomprehensible and unapproachable, it was “incomprehensibly and inexpressibly” participable. To be precise, “uncreated” did not refer to an affirmation of substance, but was an apophatic negation—an affirmation of what that light was not: created. The light, then, that radiated form the face of Christ during the Transfiguration was divine, the “essential operation/activity” of God, distinct yet indivisible and inseparable from the Divine Essence, eternally emanating from the hypostasis of the Word of God, inexplicably purifying and uniting the apostles to God. It was the same light that enlightened the prophets of the Old Testament and that later illumined and deified the saints, initiating them into the mysteries of “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”. What is more, it is the same light that will emanate again from Christ during His second coming, flooding the world and causing the just “to shine like the sun”.
In the hymnography of August 6th and 7th, the feast and post-feast of the Transfiguration, St. Gregory finds two hymnographic passages that affirm the particibility of the light:
"The radiance of God is participible and is distributed [to those worthy]: For as [the hymnographer writes] “the Lord uncovered [His] bright radiance on the mountain” which it participants saw not in it entirety, 'so that they would not die from the vision.'"
The experience was inexplicable and unfathomable. Similarly, in his third Triad, St. Gregory cites the Kanon on the Transfiguration by St. Kosmas of Jerusalem. He argues that if one would say that the light of the Transfiguration was a temporary symbol of the divinity, distinct from the divine nature:
"Let him tell me what and how this is . . . that this experience was entirely unfathomable—and not just to the eyes—for [the hymnographer writes], '[the disciples, struck with fear and illumined], looked at one another and fell downwards upon the ground.'"