Date: Started in 1516, left uncompleted upon artist’s death in 1520
Artist: Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael)
Location: Pinacoteca Gallery in Vatican Museum
Medium: Oil on Canvas
Dimensions: 405 cm × 278 cm (159 in × 109 in)
Raphael was born in 1483 in the small town of Urbino, located in the Marche region of Italy. His father was Giovanni Santi, the court painter to the duke. He was orphaned at a young age when both his father and mother died, and his guardian became his uncle Bartolomeo, a priest who was very much involved with Raphael’s stepmother. He was quite precocious when it came to the arts, and he worked under Pietro Perugino, learning, painting, and drawing various undocumented works. His first notable work was the Baronci altarpiece for the church of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino in a small Italian town near Urbino. Raphael lived a somewhat Nomadic lifestyle, moving from place to place throughout Italy. However, he spent a good deal of time in Florence as well as Rome, where he painted the famous “Raphael Rooms” of the Vatican and began his work on “The Transfiguration.” Raphael died at the young age of 37 from an acute illness that he had contracted from “too much sex,” or so they say.
Raphael’s “The Transfiguration” was commissioned by Cardinal Guilio de Medici in 1516 for the altarpiece in the cathedral of San Giusto, located in Narbonne, France. Cardinal Guilio was made archbishop of Narbonne and later became Pope Clement VII. At the time of commission, Raphael’s progress was slow because was working on other pieces, including the Stanze, cartoons of St. Peter’s life, and other work in 3 palaces and a villa. In order to get Raphael to work faster on The Transfiguration, Guilio commissioned another painter to paint the “Raising of Lazarus.” Raphael worked on the piece over the course of the 4 years following 1516 and the painting laid unfinished at the head of his deathbed in 1520. After seeing the painting, the Pope decided to hold onto it rather than give it to the San Giusto in France, and instead donated it to San Pietro da Montono in Rome. Under Napoleon’s rule, French troops stole the painting and took it to Paris in 1797, but in 1815 it was returned to Rome, where it now sits in the Pinacoteca Gallery of the Vatican Museum. There is also a mosaic copy of the painting in St. Peter’s Basilica, which was made in 1774. Even though the piece lay unfinished at his death, Raphael considered the Transfiguration to be “his greatest masterpiece.”
The painting depicts two events that occur successively in Chapter 17 of Matthew’s gospel. At the top of the painting is the event of the transfiguration. In the story, Jesus climbs up a high mountain with three of his disciples and becomes “transfigured” before their very eyes. His face shines as bright as the sun and his clothes become extremely white. Then, Moses and Elijah appear at his side and begin to talk with him. Raphael depicts all of the details of this event in the top of the painting. Christ hovers at the focal point of the painting, and Moses and Elijah appear on his right and left sides, respectively. The three disciples, Peter, James, and John, sit beneath him and are overwhelmed by the heavenly glory that they’re witnessing. Raphael places two additional figures of his day in the scene as well. Kneeling at the left of the painting are two martyrs, Saint Felicissimus and Saint Agapitus, who are represented because their saints day is August 6th, the same day as the Feast of the Transfiguration.
In the lower part of the painting, Raphael depicts the healing of a demon possessed boy. In Matthew’s gospel, this story immediately follows that of the transfiguration. The moment in time in which the story is presented is actually simultaneous to the event of the transfiguration; while Jesus and his three disciples are up on the mountain, the other disciples are attempting to unsuccessfully cast out a demon in a possessed boy. As the story goes, Jesus comes down and casts out the demon; however, Raphael doesn’t depict that part of the story in this painting so we’ll stray away from that for the sake of relevance. This scene in the lower half of the painting is very chaotic, which represents the despairing efforts of the disciples to cast out the demon, as well as the uncomfortable emotional mood created by the presence of a demon-possessed person. The boy writhes and twists as his eyes roll around in their sockets, and the disciples point and panic in confusion as their methods are not working and they don’t know what to do.
In depicting both of these events in one painting, Raphael intentionally draws a connection between the two simultaneous stories. In the top of the image, Raphael represents the purity and divinity of Christ through the visually appealing and symmetric scene. This contrasts the bottom half of the painting, in which the asymmetric composition and chaos of the entire scene is representative of the depravity of man and the inherent uselessness of his fallen ways. This effect is heightened through the use of chiaroscuro, as the top half of the painting is illuminated from Christ’s radiance and the bottom half is significantly darker.
Despite the time period in which it was painted, Raphael’s The Transfiguration is said to have qualities of both Baroque and Mannerism art. The distorted, contorted, and proportionally-unrealistic figures that dominate the bottom half of the painting are very stylistic of the Mannerism movement (and also help to emphasize Raphael’s symbolism of the chaos of man). However, the use of chiaroscuro throughout in the illumination of the top half and darkening of the bottom half is very characteristic of the Baroque. Additionally, the dramatic tension of the entire scene and the painting’s ability to invoke emotion is also very Baroque.
Like the work of Caravaggio, I am very fond of Raphael’s work in general. Every painting of his that I’ve seen has blown me away, and The Transfiguration is by no means an exception to that reality. When I visited the Vatican Museum and stood in front of this piece, I was amazed that it looked even better in person than in pictures online. Raphael’s skill as a painter are unmatched, except possibly by Caravaggio, and his incorporation of two scenes into one provides insight into the Biblical narrative that we might not be able to grasp simply by reading the words.
Doyle, Humanities 300 Lecture.
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