Italian Paintings – The Transfiguration

In 1519, Cardinal Giuliano de Medici gave Raphael a commission to paint an altarpiece for the church of Narbonne, of which the Cardinal was Bishop. This was the famous Trans-figuration. The legend portrayed here, slightly varying from the account in the New Testament, but not contradicting it, is as follows: Christ goes out with his twelve disciples to Mt. Tabor, and leaving the nine at the foot ascends with the favored three to the summit where the Transfiguration takes place. While this transpires the family group approach with the demoniac’ boy, seeking help from a miraculous source. In honor of the Cardinal, Raphael has introduced two strangers who seem to carry to the Beatified One the intelligence of the event below. These two represent the ill-fated Giuliano, the Cardinal’s father, who was killed in the Pazzi conspiracy, the other St. Lawrence, representing Lorenzo the Magnificent, the Cardinal’s uncle.

Mr. W. H. Harris says: “It may be safely affirmed that there is scarcely a picture in existence in which the individualities are more strongly marked by internal, essential characteristics.

“Above there is no figure to be mistaken. Christ floats toward the source of all light, the invisible Father by whom all is made visible. On the right Moses appears in strong contrast to Elias on the left, the former the lawgiver, the latter the spontaneous, fiery, eagle-eyed prophet. On the mountain top are the three disciples. One recognizes on the right hand, John, gracefully bending his face down from the overpowering light, while on the left James hides his face in his humility; but Peter, the bold one, is fain to gaze directly on the splendor. He turns his face up in the act, but is, as on another occasion, mistaken in his estimate of his own endurance and is obliged to cover his eyes involuntarily with his hand.

“Below, on the mount, are two opposed groups. On the right, coming from the hamlet in the distance, is the family group, of which a demoniac boy forms the center. They, with-out doubt, saw Christ pass on His way to this solitude, and at length concluded to follow Him and test His might which had been noised abroad in that region. It is easy to see the relationship of the whole group. First, the boy actually possessed, a maniac; then his father holding and restraining him, a man pre-disposed to insanity. Kneeling at the right of the boy is his mother, whose fair Grecian face has become haggard with the trials she has endured from her son. Just beyond her is her brother, and in the shade of the mountain is her father. In the foreground is her sister. Back of the father is seen an uncle, on the father’s side, of the demoniac boy, whose features and gestures show him to be affected with the family trait. Near him is seen the face of the father’s sister, also a weak-minded person. The whole group at the right are supplicating the nine disciples in the most earnest manner for relief. The disciples grouped on the left are full of sympathy, but their looks tell plainly that they can do nothing. By their gestures they seem to be saying that the Master, He who can heal the boy, is up on the mountain.”

Some of the critics say that Raphael in this picture attempted to remove the established limits of art, to have combined two actions, and consequently two different moments. Fuseli says: “It is only necessary to examine the picture to prove the futility of the charge. Raphael has connected with the Transfiguration not the cure of the demoniac but his presentation for it. If, according to the Gospel record, this happened at the foot of the mountain, while the apparition took place at the top, what improbability is there in assigning the same moment to both? Raphael’s design was to represent Jesus as the Son of God, and at the same time as the reliever of human misery, by an unequivocal fact. The Transfiguration on Tabor, and the miraculous cure which followed the descent of Jesus, united, furnished that fact. The difficulty was to combine two successive actions in one moment. He overcame it by sacrificing the moment of the cure to that of the apparition by implying the lesser miracle in the greater. In subordinating the cure to the vision he obtained sublimity; in placing the crowd and the patient in the foreground he gained room for the full exertion of his dramatic power. It was not necessary that the demoniac boy should be represented in the moment of recovery, if its certainty could be expressed by other means. It is implied, it is placed beyond all doubt, by the apparition above, and is made nearly intuitive by the uplifted hand and finger of the apostle in the center, who, without hesitation, undismayed by the obstinacy of the demon, unmoved by the clamor of the crowd, and the skepticism of some of his companions, refers the father of the maniac in an authoritative manner, for certain and speedy help, to his master on the mountain above, whom, though unseen, his attitude at once connects with all that passes below; here is that union of the two parts of the fact in one moment.”

In the Madonna di San Sisto alone did the master attain to anything like the same spiritual beauty, and it seemed when these two were produced that a yet more glorious chap-ter in Christian art was about to open. This hope, alas, was never to be realized. Raphael was stricken with fever, and the Transfiguration he never completed. It was finished by Guilio Romano, Raphael’s best and favorite pupil.

Tradition, which tells little of the beginning of Raphael’s life, tells but little about its close. We only know that he died on the night of Good Friday, April 6, 1520, just thirty-seven years from the day he was born. The body of Raphael lay in state in his own house three days and above it was placed the Transfiguration.

Possibly the Eternal City never witnessed a more imposing funeral pageant. Cardinals, Prelates, Princes and Nobles, all classes and conditions, followed the body to its last resting place in the Pantheon.

Over the bier was borne the Transfiguration. As the body was about to be placed in the tomb, Leo X. came hastily forward, knelt by the bier, spent some moments in prayer, and took for the last time one of Raphael’s hands which he bathed with tears. The epigram upon the tomb is from the pen of Raphael’s friend, Cardinal Bembo: “Living, great Nature feared he might her works outvie, and dying, fears herself to die.”

( Originally Published 1912 )

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