THE SENSE OF THE ELEMENTALS: Lightning and Thunder in the Transfiguration on the High Mountain – a Hierotopy of Theomorfism

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This paper will try to come as close as it will be possible to this mystery, and to address with the scholarly hierotopic tools what theologically has been identified as something that would have rather remained mute, unspoken – a mystery. Yet, what is at stake is about sound and vision. But what kind of sound, and what kind of vision? What is the sense of the elementals manifested on the high mountain? The discussion, I argue, should move around three key notions: theophany, theophony, and theosis.
The Synoptic Gospels describe the Transfiguration (Metamorphosis) of Christ as the divine manifestation (theophany) of the glory of God in the image of Christ transfigured before his present disciples (Peter, John, and James). The Synoptic Gospels provide a fair account of the awesome vision glimpsed by the apostles that witnessed the Transfiguration of Christ. What they saw it was the divine radiance of the Invisible God made manifest in the visible. His “countenance became altered” (Luke 9:29); “his face shone like the sun” ( (Matt. 17:2); his robe was “like light” (Matt. 17:2),; “his garments became glistening, intensely (lían) white (as snow), as no fuller on earth could bleach them (Mark 9:3). Mount Thabor became the place of theophany, where God came down “from His heights” and manifested in the theophanic presence of His Son, Christ. But this event was not only about the supernatural condescension, the descent of the divine towards man; it was also an ascent of man towards the divine. This is the meaning of the Transfiguration, suggested metaphorically through the paradigm of the high mountain. Maximus the Confessor characterizes the Transfiguration as an “ascent,” where by the power of the divine light that transcends the apostles’ human faculties they could pass “from flesh to spirit” in order to perceive the “unapproachable” light.
There is as well the aural aspect of the event to which the Synoptics referred to as the “voice” coming from the luminous cloud (Matt. 17:5-7, Mark 9:7, Luke 9:34-35). The paper makes a short review of the interpretations of the voice of the Father by such Christian theologians like Origin, John Chrysostomos and Palamas, and the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. This gives us a consistent idea about the rapport between the seeing and hearing in the Christian and the Judaic tradition, namely, a certain privilege of the seen (vision) over hearing, which follows a certain direction from the Old Testament. In the Biblical tradition, the word of God is rather “seen” than heard. My research leads me to the idea that “vision” of the voice of the Father would intensify the already dazzling effect of the theophanic vision on the high mountain. One can securely interpret God’s presence manifested as a “thundering voice,” thus a sonorous phenomenon that provided the disciples with a shuttering experience. But the thundering voice of YHWH does not pertain to the elements as such, it is not the natural element, but it exceeds any physical elements by God’s infinite might. It is the ungraspable presence beyond hearing. Thus, I would argue, it belongs to the elemental, the encompassing. The elemental does not belong to nature, to the physics, but to the meta-physics. The task of hierotopy, specifically of this paper, is to search for the proper definition of the elemental engaged in the event of the Transfiguration. The high mountain provides already a paradigmatic place for the revelation in which God and man have been transfigured. In this event, the elementals participate in the externalization of the holy that marks with its presence the mountain’s horizon. But in what ways and how is the thunder and the lightning other than mere things (elements) of the sensible? How could they be apt to carry out the divine manifestation? What is it about them that distinguish them from mere sensible things? My argumentation in the attempt to answer these questions follows the ancient Greek tradition of perception of the elementals, which was integrated in the Byzantine culture, along with the Judaic source. The elementals belong to nature, yet not entirely only to pure physical nature. They grant natural things an expanse in which they exceed mere natural things, as they show themselves to be manifestly irreducible to mere sensible things. Such is the expanse of the sky that exceeds the human horizon, the mortal perspective. The encompassing character of the elementals includes the horizon of the mountain, the thundering voice of God, and the dazzling light.
I thus argue that within a “synesthetic hierotopy,” or a “hierotopic synesthesia” of the elementals, the thundering voice of God gathers them all, intensifying vision, lightning the mystery of the theophany. Thus, theophony becomes theophany. But, as Baudinet put it, “Transfiguration, metamorphosis, this is the name that designates both the glory of the resurrected body and the work of the spectator’s gaze on the icon.” The first spectators of what we could perceive as the proto-icon of the Transfiguration, the disciples, have been themselves transformed in order to reach that vision. Vision was transformative; it changed the mortal eyes by its exceeding radiance deifying the sight. This leads us to an important moment of the interpretation of the mystery occurred on the high mountain, and the third term of the analysis: theosis. There is a logical association between dazzling light and theosis. The Areopagite calls out to the Christian to stretch upwardly to God in prayer; to let oneself being lifted up to the brilliance above, to “the dazzling light of those beams,” the radiance of God. This should eventually lead man to theosis – the deification of man. Man becomes a temple of the Demiurge by sharing/participating into His divine action. In the Mystagogy of Maximus the Confessor, the interpreter of the Corpus Dionysiacum, the author gives us the clue about the deification of man. For Maxim, the deification of man is defined as a perichoresis expressed as a reciprocal indwelling, that is, a double movement: as God's movement toward men in the Incarnation, and man's movement toward God in the imitative process of deification. The deified man, Hieranthropos, or, the Hierotopic Man, whose model has been provided by the elected disciples ascending the holy mountain, should be no doubt an intimate part of Hierotopy project.
In Byzantine iconography, there is an interesting example provided by some Sinai icons from 12th c, which might be related to the ideas elaborated perhaps in the course of the theological discussions that took place at that time around the divine light and mystical vision. More exactly, it is about an iconographic detail, consistently present in a series of Sinai burnished-gold panels from the twelfth century, placed on top of the icons under the guise of what looks like a golden whirling disc (Fig. 1). The icon is specifically a depiction of the Transfiguration. Defined as a self-standing element within the abstract golden background of the icon, it creates its own space within space. Aniconic in its appearance, the golden disc is tilting, catching the eyes of the beholder with its glory; its circularity imprints a vibrant dynamics around it, just as the effect created by the haloes of the saints. Alexei Lidov associates this specific iconographical patter of the “whirling disc” with performativity in Byzantium, within the paradigm of the “whirling church,” which is a pertinent idea and an important contribution to hierotopy. My contribution to the interpretation of this image will move further beyond its apparent aniconic character, and further define the nature of its performativity. Although no specific image seems to emerge out of the whirling discs, they project outwardly a pure circular radiance, the dazzling vision generated by the motion created by the gold. Their space is the ground of a theophany. Focusing one’s eye on these golden discs, image and space merge together in a single vision, a spectacular vision in which everything moves, spinning round as a helix, out of which the hidden image manifests. Vision emerges as a chiasmus, the abbreviation of the holy name of Christ. The sacred space thus created is a chiasmus in action, which reveals in its motion, like a perichoresis, a mystic vision. It is my contention that the presence of these solar discs in the icon carries an important ontological meaning, and as I hope to demonstrate, a lesson for anthropology, especially for hierotopy as Christian anthropology.

TitelHoly Mountains in the Hierotopy and Iconography of the Christian World
Antal sider18
Udgivelses stedMoscow
ISBN (Trykt)978-5-91796-067-8
StatusUdgivet - 2019

ID: 213885048