The Uncreated Light: An Iconographical Study of the Transfiguration in
the Eastern Church
reviewed by Addison H. Hart
Solrunn Nes’s work is strikingly her own, yet well within the Church’s tradition. Her icons are bright, spare, free of busyness and visual “noise,” and immediate to the beholder. Perhaps it is the provenance of her work, painted in the land of fjords and the aurora borealis, that inspires its luminosity and vibrancy of color. It appears “written” in runes of hued Nordic sunlight, yet in fine Byzantine style.
The highest compliment I can pay her work, though, is that it induces one to pray and to conceive a desire for the True Beauty objectively reflected there. (One can view her work, though reproductions cannot do full justice to it, on the Internet at www.icon-painting.com, as well as in her beautiful and informative earlier book, The Mystical Language of Icons, an expanded version of which has been reissued this year.)
Originally the thesis she presented at the University of Bergen in 1992, The Uncreated Light is, she writes, “the child of my heart,” suggesting that it is really a personal statement disguised as a thesis. It is centered in the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration, as rendered and interpreted in four representative portrayals spanning the sixth through the fifteenth centuries (and supplemented by four other works).
With this as its focus, it is nevertheless a statement about the human person in his relation to God. One can find the key to Nes’s thesis in this: “Theosis [the deification of the believer] does not imply that the difference between the divine and the human is erased. On the contrary, greater likeness with God will make man more human since the deified man has developed his God-given potential. . . . Iron which is heated by fire is still iron, but is different from cold iron in that it can be formed” (emphasis mine).
The patristic image of fire and iron is important to Nes. The point is that the human person is not lost, or disintegrated, or broken down, or made to vanish in his encounter with God. Nothing of the truly human, including personal identity, is “left behind,” but is taken up, made infinite and more fully itself in communion with the deifying Christ—human iron infused with divine fire.
The Artist’s Search
Nes’s own personal search was nothing less than one for a faith in which the integrity of the person was not compromised or threatened. She found this in Catholicism, to which she converted in 1987, and most particularly in the riches of the Byzantine tradition. Having grown up in the “Prayer House” and its stringent piety, in which human nature was so often depicted as utterly incapable of producing anything worthy or good, she discovered as a young woman a partial remedy to this seeming diminishment of the human in the Charismatic movement.
There, however, human identity seemed to require a certain manifest “happiness” to secure some assurance of its worth—one’s relationship with God being gauged by the amount of “joy” one was expected to exhibit, almost on cue. She wandered into Buddhism for a while, which taught the somewhat less than cheerful notion that personal extinction is the chief end of human existence. Spiritually exhausted, she turned to the study of psychology, only to find there a more secular and subtle mode of breaking down the human person.
It was her encounter in Athens with ancient Christian art—icons, medieval frescoes, mosaics—that profoundly moved her to new awareness of the living Christ. Somehow, overwhelmingly yet therapeutically, the Word was made visual, and she finally found herself “at home.” In the inseparability of prayer and sacred art, experientially and existentially, she found the assurance that the human person was indeed of infinite worth to its Triune Creator. The Uncreated Light is really the outcome of that discovery.
In the book, Nes does what most art historians do. She gives us insightful descriptions of two sixth-century apse mosaics, an eleventh-century manuscript illumination, and a fifteenth-century Russian icon of the Transfiguration. But the book is richly theological in a way that art history books generally are not. She “exegetes” the art through two theological controversies that stand as historical bookends for the centuries she covers: eighth-century Iconoclasm (the attempted eradication of iconography) at one end, and the fourteenth-century Hesychasm (dealing with matters of mystical prayer) at the other. Without this grasp of the relevant theology, we soon realize, one could miss so very much that is vital to the iconography itself.
The three-part structure of the book—“Ascent,” “Vision,” and “Descent”—assumes the shape of the Transfiguration accounts and, by extension, the eastern-patristic path of the mystical journey. Nes shows just how multivalent the Transfiguration of Christ is: In other words, she shows how the various depictions themselves elucidate such perennial truths as the Incarnation, the glory of the Cross, eschatology, and human deification.
She reminds us that, in this event, we find delineated that combination of fear and worship that does not threaten to destroy our fragility or extinguish our identity. Our God descended to lift human nature into the uncreated light, and the human person, united to him, is transfigured in a love beyond comprehension. Out of the fear and worship of the holy mountain comes a reassuring word of comfort.
This book, in its hardbound edition, with its 36-page appendix of scriptural and patristic citations and 15 pages of color plates, is worth its hefty price. It belongs alongside other important works exploring the art of the Church, and its theological weight is especially to be appreciated.
This book and the newly expanded The Mystical Language of Icons can be ordered directly from: Eastern Christian Publications, P.O. Box 146, Fairfax, VA 22030 (www.ecpubs.com). A paperback edition of The Uncreated Light is also available for $15.00, but it lacks both the patristic appendix and color plates. Nes can be contacted for commissions or exhibitions through her website at www.icon-painting.com.
Addison H. Hart is retired from active ministry as parish priest and university chaplain. He is the author of Knowing Darkness: On Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship, and God and The Yoke of Jesus: A School for the Soul in Solitude (both from Eerdmans). His forthcoming book is a study of the Sermon on the Mount. He lives and writes in Norheimsund, Norway.
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