For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount.
What a deliciously little hill for Jesus’ Transfiguration! But Gerard David worked in Bruges in the flattest part of what is now Belgium, so no need to depict a mountain. What he does show is the eyewitnesses of the majesty of Our Lord Jesus Christ, namely Peter, James and John. Oh, and what looks like a pious local family of 1520, five hundred years ago to us, and 1500 years after the event.
These people are witnesses as well, though not illuminated, as the Apostles are, by the light from the bright cloud and Jesus’ majesty. They are among those blessed ones who have not seen but yet believe, and so they have commissioned this painting, inviting their fellow-citizens and us, the 21st Century viewers, to share their faith. There would have to be many extra panels to this work of art to accommodate even a few of the faithful who did not see but believed over the years since the family ordered the picture.
We can, instead, stand back to reflect upon the different parts of the painting. The storm which threatens the family’s composure is rolled away from the holy mount by the impressive bright cloud. The focus of their attention is just below it: Jesus in his white garment, blessing his apostles, blessing us who have not seen for ourselves, but have learnt about his majesty and glory through listening to the Apostles who told what they saw that day.
High in the cloud God the Father is blessing Jesus: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Slightly above Jesus – for they are in heaven while he is still on earth, it is not yet time for the cloud to take him up to the Father – Moses and Elijah. Moses seems to be in active conversation with God, as he often was in the Old Testament – while Elijah seems to be at peace in the presence of the just king, no longer in fear for his life: he is in heaven before Jesus’ death and resurrection.
In the background, stark against the wide horizon, one tree, a reminder of those saving events.
Let us pray for the grace to listen to the Lord’s messengers, in the books of the Bible, and among all the witnesses to the faith since then. And let us pray to be true witnesses ourselves, proclaiming the Gospel by our lives.