The Luminous Mysteries is a very new set of mysteries! And by very new, I mean that it was added to the official Rosary by St. Pope John Paul II in October 2002. It is so new that I have never been aware of a time without the Luminous Mysteries! (Mind you, I am a millennial, so this is probably somewhat expected, but still.)
The addition of this set of mysteries was actually pretty controversial, and some people still refuse to pray the Luminous Mysteries because of this controversy. After all, the original Rosary has a profound history — it is the Angelic Psalter which Our Lady gave St. Dominic! If the Rosary needed an addition, wouldn’t Our Lady have given it to St. Dominic?
So, it was with surprise that I found this artwork!
It is of the Transfiguration!
The bible describes the Transfiguration as such:
28 About eight days after he said this, he took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray. 29While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. 30And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. 32Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. 33As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But he did not know what he was saying. 34 While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” 36After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. They fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen.
And so, in this picture you’ll see Jesus in white, along with Moses holding the tablets and Elijah in flames to signify his chariot of fire. Below are Christ’s disciples, including Peter, who is in the middle, John, who is to the left (John is traditionally portrayed without a beard!), and James, who is to the right.
It is a fairly typical icon in many respects… except for the bottom! Look closely at the bottom! You’ll see the donor, Johannes Göckerlein, who commissioned this piece to be a sort of coat of arms, on his knees praying, as so many donors did in these sorts of religious artworks that they commissioned. Now, look at his hands!
In his hands, there is a rosary!
Honestly, this was incredible to me. This painting was done in 1515. That is 487 years before St. Pope John Paul II suggested the Luminous Mysteries in his apostolic letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, in which he formally introduced the Luminous Mysteries.
This, of course, got me wondering… what was the history of the Luminous Mysteries? Were there any special devotions like the Luminous Mysteries back in the 16th century?
Well… it’s complicated.
First, it seems as if the Luminous Mysteries, as it formally is today, is a very recent development. And by early, I mean that it seems to have been developed in the late 19th or early 20th century before it was formally adopted.
And yet… it is not inconceivable that people used the beads of the Rosary to meditate on what we now acknowledge as the Luminous Mysteries. There are many chaplets that follow the form and style of the Rosary. Indeed, the format of the Rosary was based after the Psalter — a series of 150 psalms that were recited to glorify God.
Yet, it’s also very likely that he may have simply been meditating on the glory of God. After all, the Rosary is a beautiful prayer that connects us with God by allowing us to meditate on the life of Christ, from the very moment of Christ’s conception to the triumph of His Kingship. It allows us to reflect on the glory of God through the eyes of Mary.
And the Transfiguration is definitely an event that glorifies God! It is when Jesus shows His Divine Nature! In fact, Peter is so astonished by the Transfiguration that He suggests pitching a tent. Which, to us, might seem to be an odd time to think about camping. But to Peter, a tent was the place where the Ark of the Covenant — aka, the very essence of God — was stored under.
In art, the Transfiguration is also portrayed as a glorious event! Many times, pictures of the Ascension can be confused with images of the Transfiguration in Western Art. In Eastern art, the newer Resurrection icons are often based on Transfiguration icons.
And so, why would a man commission an artist to depict him kneeling down with a rosary in hand while gazing at the Transfiguration 487 years before the Luminous Mysteries were suggested?
Simple: to acknowledge the glory of God.
This blog is part of a blog series about the Luminous Mysteries. This artwork, as well as many others, are available in my book, The Luminous Mysteries, which allows you to pray the Rosary prayer by prayer, with each prayer illustrated with gorgeous religious art. If you would like to learn more about the books, click here!