Raphael Sanzio (Urbino, 1483 - Rome, 1520), The transfiguration, 1518-20, rich tempera on panel, 405 x 278 cm, Vatican, Vatican Pinacoteca.
6th of August, feast of the Transfiguration.
We have already written about this magnificent board (cf. month of October 2017) presenting the mysteries of the Rosary. Its beauty is such, its fame is so great, that we wish to add other and different considerations on the same.
First of all, let us remember the great importance of the painting. It was commissioned to Raphael by Cardinal Giulio De' Medici, cousin of Pope Leo X (Giovanni De' Medici, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, while Giulio was the son of Giuliano, Lorenzo's youngest brother murdered in the Pazzi conspiracy).
Giulio in turn became Pope in 1523 with the name of Clement VII. When in 1515 Giulio was appointed bishop of Narbonne, France, he wanted to embellish the cathedral of his new home with two large paintings entrusted to Raphael and Sebastiano del Piombo, who had recently arrived to Rome but was sponsored by none other than Michelangelo. In this regard, it seems that the two characters kneeling on the left side, on Mount Tabor, are Saints Giusto and Pastore, to whom Narbonne Cathedral was dedicated. The work of Raphael, for whose premature death was completed by his faithful disciple Giulio Romano, pleased Cardinal Giulio so much that he no longer sent it to France but placed it in the Roman church of San Pietro in Montorio.
The second thing we want to emphasise has to do with the gaze. And in this regard, we note how Raphael chose an unusual representation of the Transfiguration. For the most part, in fact, starting from the ancient Byzantine icons that reproduce the scene, Jesus is firmly represented leaning on the top of the mountain with his feet on the ground, with Moses and Elijah at his side and, lower down in amazement, the three witnesses disciples, Peter, James and John. Even Raphael, as evidenced by a preparatory drawing now preserved in the Louvre Museum in Paris, initially had this iconography in mind. But then he changes his mind: Jesus - and with him Moses and Elijah - is detached from the ground, the robes are ruffled by a rushing wind, the eyes are raised towards the sky. If we looked only at the upper part of the painting, we would be more likely to believe that we are faced with the representation of the mystery of the Ascension.
Now, finally, let's go back to the gaze, let's stand in front of this huge altarpiece and let our eyes go through it. And here they meet first of all the crowd, the excited disciples, the frightened father who brought the demoniac son to heal him, the woman on her knees in the beautiful pink dress and blue cloak in her graceful pose while pointing at the boy. However, our gaze does not stop in front of the turmoil and the many people. It slides upwards, it is captured by the light that surrounds the figure of Jesus, to the point that we hardly even notice the three startled apostles on the top of the mountain and the same Moses and Elijah seem more a frame to the true and only protagonist, Jesus. The Synoptic Gospels all recount the episode of the Transfiguration (Mt 17, 1-8; Mk 9, 2-8; Lk 9, 28-36) and all remember in particular the light of Jesus' face and the whiteness of his robes (Mark notes that no laundryman would have been able to make them so white!). And in Raphael’s work we find both of these elements, the bright face and the white robes!
One of the three eyewitnesses, Peter, wrote in his second letter: “It was not any cleverly invented myths that we were repeating when we brought you the knowledge of the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; we had seen his majesty for ourselves. He was honored and glorified by God the Father, when the Sublime Glory itself spoke to him and said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favor." We heard this ourselves, spoken from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain" (2 Pt 1, 16-18).
And we realise that our gaze is still up there, on the holy mountain, to contemplate Jesus, in the beauty that Raphael knew how to render, to the point that we could repeat the words of Peter, identically reported by the three evangelists: "Master, it is good for us to be here!".
P.S. On August 6, liturgical feast of the Transfiguration, I will give myself the joy of looking at the great work of Raphael preserved in the Vatican Pinacoteca. In front of this masterpiece, I will bring the gaze of each and everyone who reads these lines!