501 Treasures of Byzantium: No. 41 The Transfiguration, Monastery of St. Catherine, Mt Sinai.

In the Monastery of St. Catherine’s you will find many original sixth century Byzantine decorations. Among them on the upper part of the apse and the triumphal arch over the altar, you can find one of the most beautiful and refined of all Byzantine mosaics. That mosaic is the Transfiguration of Christ, which was made during the reign of Emperor Justinian. (Between the sixth and ninth centuries, the Monastery of St. Catherine’s was known as the Basilica of the Transfiguration, after the mosaic itself.) Its lavish style and painstakingly obvious craftsmanship is attributed to the work of artists from the imperial school in Constantinople. Though, if you look carefully at the mosaic, you will notice that even the most experienced Byzantine artists can make obvious mistakes, for instance, in the case of St. Peter’s two right feet!

The Transfiguration was likely commissioned in the remote part of Egypt to show the predominately Monophysite communities of Egypt, that Christ didn’t have just one nature, but two (Christ was both human and divine). The mosaic of the Transfiguration shows Christ standing within a blue mandorla, to make him stand out against the gold leaf background and from which miraculous and supernatural lights emerge. Importantly, he is accompanied by the figures of Moses, Elias and his closest disciplines, St. James, St. John and St. Peter, to whom he reveals his divinity.