This is a traditional subject – I’ve posted some transfiguration icons already today – but Fra Angelica really highlights the outstretched arms of Christ.
The arms foretell Christ’s forthcoming suffering in his crucifixion – there is no transfiguration without pain. But don’t they also suggest arms spread wide to embrace all?
The disciples show a mixture of confusion, prayer, awe and consternation. Encountering God elicits a huge spectrum of response from us, which can include fear and awe, as well as devotion, humility and love.
The “floating heads” either side of Christ are Moses and Elijah, who appear with Christ in the Gospel accounts – these figures speak of encounter and intimacy with God. Moses became God’s spokesman about life, and Elijah’s is the voice of prophecy. People tried to make sense of Jesus by comparing him to Elijah. In John’s Gospel, Christ is contrasted with Moses:
“… the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ”
Either side of Christ stand figures in attitudes of contemplation: The Virgin Mary and St. Dominic. This fresco was painted on the wall of a room to be used by someone who had devoted their life to prayer and contemplation, and Fra Angelico’s beautiful painting is there to help guide both the original occupant of the room, and us, now, in our prayer and contemplation.