Paynter’s Transfiguration of Christ

Chapel of the Transfiguration, S. Thomas' College, Mt. Lavinia

Chapel of the Transfiguration, S. Thomas' College, Mt. Lavinia

By Rt. Rev. Duleep de Chickera (Anglican Bishop of Colombo)

One of the most life like & captivating murals ever painted, is that of the transfiguration, depicted in the Chapel of the Transfiguration at S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia, Sri Lanka. This painting of Christ in communion with Elijah & Moses brings deep insight to those who meditate on it.
This meditation is on leadership. It begins on the mountaintop & travels to the reality of the plain.
The three imposing figures of Christ, Moses & Elijah are central. We focus on them.
Moses stands with confidence. He appears planted in, and part of the rock. He holds the “Law” (two stone tablets) tucked into his side, as if part of himself. He is sure of what he is, what he knows, what he does, and what he wants. He is established.
Moses is fully clothed and behind him is the city, built, impressive and spreading. One can imagine the life in the city; orderly, organized, defined; a niche for everyone; checks and balances to safeguard rights an property, accountability, constitutions, hierarchy and so on. In short the city depicts contemporary powerful, bureaucratic, efficient and expansionist values. It is the epitome of all that is desired: the status quo.
Moses represents a leadership that easily accepts, and resolutely defends establishment. For him order matters most. He is the lawgiver.
Elijah, on the other hand appears uncertain, he sways. It’s almost as if he is about to lose his balance. He could be uprooted and tumble down at any moment. He holds a staff, useful for traveling long journeys. Elijah is unable to stay rooted, he is on the verge of moving. He must, for he is an adventurer.
Unlike Moses, he is not fully clothed. His chest is bare, except for the fold of this garment. Behind him is the wilderness. This is the unknown, that which needs to be explored, the terrain for those who follow their curiosity, who dare to question and travel, trading risk for the anticipation of surprise and discovery. Here life is rugged, open to the elements, uncertain and dangerous. Little is defined and very few safeguards prevail. The wilderness depicts age-old universal values that explore investigate and challenge. Together these refuse to accept the status quo, for the only thing that must be preserved is movement. This is life, restlessness in a never-ending search.
Elijah represents a leadership that upholds movement. For him truth matters most. He is the prophet.
The garments, of the figures, caught by the wind, indicate the direction in which it is blowing. It blows from behind Elijah, from the wilderness to the city. And this is no ordinary wind. It is the mighty desert wind, Ruah (Heb). Ruah also refers to the Spirit of God. The Spirit is behind Elijah. Is it pushing him towards Moses and the city? Does the push suggest contact for communication or contact to challenge or contact to counter? In the mural at least, the wind, the spirit moves on ……… it never stops.
We turn to the Christ. He demands the last word. But here He speaks with His hands. They are in a most unnatural gesture. The two palms face different directions, suggesting deliberate positioning. Both hands have moved away from His body, the left towards Moses, and the right towards Elijah. The palm of the left hand cannot be seen. It is turned inwards in a sign of cautioning Moses. It seems to be saying ……… go-slow, pause, stay, stop. The palm of the right hand is turned the other way. It is opened but not fully, in a gesture of offering encouragement. It seems to be saying …… proceed but carefully. It says it caringly, implying that the direction is not easy. It also seems to be saying it with dignity … there is respect for those who travel the path of Elijah.
This mural, since the mid 1960’s influenced generations of Thomian schoolboys in particular. It has correspondingly produced two types. In some, the path they would travel was discernable during their school days. For all that could be said in favour of those who pursued the Moses tradition, it is ones who walk with the prophet that makes the difference in communities like St. Thomas. For any community that fosters exploration and adventure is engaged in wholesome education.
The Mural speaks to others as well.
The choice of leadership in all other spheres also fundamentally between establishment and movement.
Those who opt for establishment are inevitably compelled to strengthen existing structures, expand existing boundaries, entrench ritual, tradition and law, and legitimize sacrosanct cliques, parties and communities. From here on no matter what the rhetoric may imply, consultation, commissions, decisions and promises effectually become means of manipulation and control. When the happen, truth suffers and life becomes a charade; and vision and values, peoples needs and aspirations, all become subject to the consolidation of power. And then … history is repeated as the people are oppressed.
The choice for movement reverses this order. It begins, as all prophets do by challenging people’s values that create and perpetuate oppressive establishment. Leadership for movement believes that the decline of oppressive establishment corresponds with the growth of universal salvific human values.
In this task truth and freedom are the dynamic that empowers. People must be set free with the truth and for the truth. This way the converted become the conveyors and momentum is assured. In this process, hypocrisy (righteous claims and unrighteous doings) is condemned more than ignorance and error. And since all are hypocrites, self-criticism becomes intrinsic.
Restless dissatisfaction and rejection of recognition further characterize this leadership. The former provokes search and prevents complacency, and the latter disregards crowns, for crowns are heavy and impede movement.
Caught up in structured society this kind of leadership acknowledges the need for organization in which community and change are twin pillars. Community ideally comprises people in equal participatory relationships, and change ideally requires the continuous pitching of differently designed tents. Since these ideals are never achieved even satisfactorily, leadership for movement engages in discourse. For that which is, can always be improved upon, but no improvement is possible till that which is, discussed continuously with integrity.
From the chancel the viewer of the mural sees Moses ion the right hand side of Christ. From Christ’s position however Elijah is on His right hand side. The biblical metaphor of the ‘right hand side’ conveys harmony with the divine intention and authority to accomplish this intention.
The disciples in the mural stand with the viewer in the chancel and opt to build tents …… the foretaste of the city. For them too Moses is on the right side and establishment is right.
The request of the disciple was refuted by the Christ. David Paynter the imaginative creator of the mural does likewise. Together they suggest that movement rather than establishment is right, it provokes transfiguration.

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