Raphael (1483-1520) was a master painter of the Renaissance. Raphael considered the Transfiguration to be his greatest masterpiece though he died before he could finish it at age 37. A student finished it.
In his final delirium he asked to see his painting for the last time. His friends brought it to him, and placed it on the bed in which he died on Good Friday, 1520.
Giorgio Vasari, the sixteenth century Italian painter, writer, historian said of the painting that is was “…the most famous, the most beautiful and most divine…”
Cardinal Giulio de’Medici (who later became Pope Clement VII), commissioned Raphael to paint Transfiguration for the city of Narbonne, in France. The painting was kept personally by the Pope after Raphael’s untimely death, until he donated it to the church of San Pietro in Rome.
The painting is now housed in the Vatican Museum and is large – 15 feet, 1.5 inches by 9 feet, 1.5 inches. Raphael preferred painting on canvas, but this painting was done with oil paints on wood as chosen mediums.
The Transfiguration was ahead of its time, just as Raphael’s death came too soon. The dramatic tension within these figures, and the liberal use of light to dark was characteristic of the next age – the Baroque.
On the most obvious level, the painting can be interpreted as the split between the flaws of men, depicted in the lower half, and the redemptive power of Christ, in the upper half of the painting
Two scenes from the Gospel of Matthew are depicted in Raphael’s Transfiguration. One the transfiguration itself Christ reaching to the heavens symbolic of a future resurrected stage and an epileptic boy falling to the ground in a seizure, lies there as if dead and then ‘rises’ up again.
The only link between the two parts of the picture is made by the epileptic boy, who is the only person in the lower half of the picture whose face is turned to the transfigured Christ in the upper part of the painting.
At the top, it is Mathew 17:1-9. Christ has climbed Mount Tabor with the Apostles, and there he is transfigured—appearing in his glorified body, flanked by Moses (representing the Law) and Elijah (representing the Prophets).
We see the transfigured Christ floating aloft, bathed in a blue/white aura of light and clouds. To his left and right are the figures of the prophets, Moses and Elijah. White and blue colors are used symbolically to signify spiritual colors.
Below Christ we see the three disciples on the mountain top shielding their eyes from the radiance and maybe because of their own fear of what is happening above them. The two figures kneeling to the left of the mountain top are said to be the martyrs Saint Felicissimus and Saint Agapitus of Palestrina.
In the lower part of the painting we have a depiction by Raphael of the Apostles trying, with little success, to liberate the possessed boy from his demonic possession.
There is much more movement with Rafael’s depiction of a number of people in varied poses. In contrast to blues and white are other colors (red, orange, green, yellow, etc.) are used in the depiction of the remaining figures in the painting. They are warm colors that symbolize humanity. Raphael had mastered an elegant style when showing the drapery of the clothing on the figures in this painting. The figures also have complex facial expressions and interesting poses.
The Apostles fail in their attempts to save the ailing child until the recently-transfigured Christ arrives and performs a miracle.
Matthew’s Gospel (Mathew 17:14-21) recounts the happening:
“…When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.” “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment. Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you…”
The scene is described vividly in this blog:
“The young boy, with arms outstretched and distorted in a combination of fear and pain, is possessed by some sort of demonic spirit. He is being led forward by his elders towards Christ who is about to descend from the mountain. The boy is crying and rolling his eyes heavenwards. His body is contorted as he is unable to control his movement. The old man behind the boy struggles to control him. The old man, with his wrinkled brow has his eyes wide open in fear as to what is happening to his young charge. He looks directly at the Apostles, visually pleading with them to help the young boy. See how Raphael has depicted the boy’s naked upper body. We can see the pain the boy is enduring in the way the artist has portrayed the pale colour of his flesh, and his veins, as he makes those violent and fearsome gestures. The raised arms of the people below pointing to Christ, who is descending, links the two stories within the painting. A woman in the central foreground of the painting kneels before the Apostles. In the middle, the kneeling woman symbolizes the Church and its task of bringing peace, hope and faith to the victims of evil. She points to the boy in desperation, pleading with them to help alleviate his suffering."
“She has her back to us. ….Her right knee is thrust forward whilst she thrusts her right shoulder back. Her left knee is positioned slightly behind the right and her left shoulder forward. Thus her arms are directed to the right whilst her face and gaze are turned to the left. Raphael gives her skin and drapery much cooler tones than those he uses for the figures in heavy chiaroscuro in the lower scene and by doing so illuminates her pink garment. The way he paints her garment puts emphasis on her pose. She and her clothes are brilliantly illuminated so that they almost shine as bright as the robes of the transfigured Christ and the two Old Testament Prophets who accompany him. There is an element about her depiction which seems to isolate from the others in the crowd at the lower part of the painting and this makes her stand out more.”
In the Christian Middle Ages, as in ancient Greek and Roman times, epilepsy was regarded as the ‘unnatural, mysterious illness which is not of this world.’ It was believed that epilepsy was caused by demons,
“The scene shows the father (wearing a green robe to symbolize hope) bringing his son to the disciples. The painting shows the boy having a seizure: his father has to support him as he cannot stand upright. The boy’s limbs are stiff (tonic) and twisted, his mouth is slightly open, his lips are blue, his eyes are fixed in a squint. It is clear to see that during such a convulsion the ‘demon’ would throw the victim ‘into the fire or into the water’ (Mt 17, 14) if he were not under the care of his family."