Transfiguration Sunday

Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight by Albrecht Dürer — oil on panel, 1500

February 27, 2022 Lectionary Texts Year C
Exodus 34: 29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9: 28-36 (37-43a)

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It really is the ultimate selfie, if you will, from a time when selfies were somewhat taboo. Dürer’s Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight marks a significant transition in art-making. No artist had ever portrayed themselves alone or as boldly as Dürer does here. Sure, it was natural that artists should sketch themselves in the name of study and practice… maybe even paint their own face in a crowd of people now and then. Deeming oneself a worthy subject, as Dürer does here, is a first. Painting portraits of the rich and famous were one of the ways artists such as Dürer made a living. Always though, a person was depicted in profile or a three-quarter turn position. A full frontal pose was reserved for none other than the Son of God. This had been the tradition for centuries.

Dürer choosing to face the viewer head-on comes across as completely arrogant. Does he think he’s God or something? And why are we even looking at this image here in Visio Divina??

I’d like to give you some additional information that I hope will get you contemplating around the significance of an image such as this on a Sunday when we celebrate the Transfiguration.

What we know about Dürer from his journals is that he was a person of faith. Dürer saw his artistic ability as a gift given to him by God. He understood the use of this gift to be the fulfillment of his Divine calling. He wasn’t just cranking out masterpieces for the money or the status (though he did become quite wealthy thanks to the combination of his phenomenal engraving skills and the invention of the printing press).

When he painted this portrait at the mid-point of his life, it was a private matter. Few individuals saw this piece while he was alive. So what is this about then? One verse from this week’s lectionary texts is a clue for us: 2 Corinthians 3:18. Is Dürer communicating his own transformative journey of becoming Christ-like? That is a common interpretation of this portrait. If so, I can’t think of a more powerful way of illustrating that concept.

Now all of us, with our faces unveiled, reflect the glory of the Lord as if we are mirrors; and so we are being transformed, metamorphosed, into His same image from one radiance of glory to another, just as the Spirit of the Lord accomplishes it. — 2 Corinthians 3:18

Christ Giving His Blessing by Hans Memling – oil on oak wood, 1487

This image of Christ by Hans Memling is similar to Dürer’s portrait. Note the gesture of blessing here. In Dürer’s portrait, his hand is gesturing the blessing towards himself. This too could be interpreted as an act of arrogance or we can see it as a way of Dürer communicating gratitude for his life, his salvation and the sacredness with which he regards his artistic gifts.

I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous about presenting this image to you this week. These feelings of apprehension rise out of the several thoughts. First, I am aware that for far too long, Western art has dominated Christian culture. It is a very “white Jesus” who has long been the standard “face of God” imagery. Those of us who are of white European descent often don’t think twice about this. Second, it feels arrogant/biased/naive of me to select the portrait of a white man for a Sunday as special as Transfiguration Sunday.

Ultimately, I decided in favor of this image. These visio divina selections absolutely should included images that create discomfort in us. It is good to explore such feelings and the thoughts behind them. If you are feeling anything uncomfortable, please take some time to explore what that is about. It may be of interest to know that you wouldn’t be the first person to find this portrait unsettling for one reason or another… a troubled museum goer managed to slash both of Dürer’s eyes and permanently damage this piece.

I would hope you might be open to the invitation to go deeper… beyond what the presentation of this portrait could represent on the surface. I encourage and invite you especially into the dark mysteries, the symbolisms hidden behind the figure. What might we discover there about ourselves, who we are, who we are called to be?

I personally hold the spiritual meaning of this portrait in high regard. It’s been a significant influence on the way I see myself, my artistic gifts and my own inner (and outer) journey of transformation. Some of you may know that I have been slowly working the past few years on a self-portrait very similar to Dürer’s. That process has been a practice of both meditation and a documentation of my own spiritual transformation.

Some things to ponder…

The detail of this portrait is exquisite. Dürer is documenting the full extent of his God-given talent. What are your God-given abilities? Do you regularity use them to their full potential?

Take a moment to explore the background of the portrait. It is painted entirely black. What spiritual symbolism do you find in this? What support do the lectionary texts provide to the concept of a figure emerging out of darkness?

What has been one point of significance in your own transformative journey?

I leave you with an adaptation of a beautiful prayer recorded by Dürer. On this Sunday of Transfiguration, I am substituting the word face where Durer uses voice…

Help us to recognize your [face], help us not to be allured by the madness of the world, so that we may never fall away from you, O Lord Jesus Christ. AMEN

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