The tympanum sculpture of the Transfiguration at the Cluniac priory church of Notre-Dame de la Charité-sur-Loire in Burgundy ranks as one of the masterpieces of Romanesque sculptural art evincing similarities with the Languedocian style of Moissac.
The Transfiguration was a rare subject for art. It was a late addition to the liturgical calendar celebrated only in monasteries belonging to the Cluniac order from 1132.
The subject of commentaries by Saint John Chrysostom and Peter the Venerable, the twelfth century abbot of Cluny, it was considered by them a prefiguration of the Second Coming.
According to the accounts described in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the vision was witnessed by three disciples only, Peter, John and James.
This narrative of the New Testament was key to the importance attributed to Saint James in the medieval world. That he was witness to the appearance of Christ’s divinity was of huge significance.
There is little variation in the three gospel accounts: the disciples were led up a mountain by Jesus, which although unnamed in the Gospels was recognised by medieval tradition as the Mount Tabor situated a few miles from the shore of lake Galilee.
There, Jesus was seen talking to two men, Moses and Elias and “transfigured” becoming bright as the sun. A hand emerged from the clouds and a voice was heard saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”.
Afterwards, Jesus bound the three disciples to a vow of secrecy as to the scene they had witnessed telling them, “Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again”.
The disciples are confounded by this remarking that Elias, according to the Book of Malachi was to return before the Day of Judgment. Whereupon Jesus tells them that Elias has already returned in the form of John the Baptist.
Surviving from the sixth century only three large scale Byzantine mosaic representations are known. At Ravenna at the church of Saint Apollinare in Classe at Ravenna, the Christ is represented by the Crux Gemmata, the bejewelled cross which had been set on Golgotha by the emperor Theodosius in the early fifth century. He is attended by Moses and Elias while beneath the disciples are depicted as sheep.
As at Ravenna, the mosaic at Saint Catherine’s monastery at Sinai is set in the vault of the apse. The disciples are in human form crouching beneath a Christ in mandorla. Another mosaic depiction exists at the Euphrasian basilica at Parenzo in modern Croatia.
A contemporaneous account mentions a Transfiguration mosaic scene in Constantine‘s church of the Holy Apostles at Constantinople. In the destroyed cathedral of Naples it was associated with the Twenty-Four Elders of the Apocalypse.
Biblio: Les Grands Portails Romans, Yves Christe, 1969
A Propos du tympana de la Vierge à Notre-Dame de la Charité-sur-Loire, Yves Christe, Cahiers de Civilisation Medièvale 9. 34 1966