THE TRANSFIGURATION, by Raphael, 1520, 405 x 278 cm
painting shows (modified by artistic license) two separate episodes of
the ministry of Jesus Christ, both narrated in Chapter 9 of the Gospel
according to Saint Mark: the Transfiguration, and the healing of a boy
possessed by an evil spirit:
2... Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. 3His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. 4And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
5Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters--one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." 6(He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
7Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!"
8Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. ...
The Healing of a Boy Possessed by an Evil Spirit
14When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. 15As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.
16"What are you arguing with them about?" he asked.
17A man in the crowd answered, "Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. 18Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not."
19"O unbelieving generation," Jesus replied, "how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me."
20So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.
21Jesus asked the boy's father, "How long has he been like this?"
22"From childhood," he answered. "It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us."
23" 'If you can'?" said Jesus. "Everything is possible for him who believes."
24Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"
25When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the evil spirit. "You deaf and mute spirit," he said, "I command you, come out of him and never enter him again."
26The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, "He's dead." 27But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.
28After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, "Why couldn't we drive it out?"
29He replied, "This kind can come out only by prayer."
Giulio de' Medici commissioned The Transfiguration in 1517 to
Raphael for the French Cathedral of Narbonne. Bad health ending in death
prevented Raphael from finishing it.
The composition of The Transfiguration is divided into two distinct parts: the Miracle of the Possessed Boy on a lower level; and the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor, in the top half. The transfigured Christ floats in an aura of light and clouds above the hill, accompanied by Moses and Elijah. Below, on the ground, are his disciples. Some are dazzled by the light of glory, others are in prayer. The gestures of the crowd beholding at the miracle link the two parts together: the raised hands of the crowd converge toward the figure of Christ. In this very grand composition Raphael has summed up all the elements present in the best of contemporary painting, including references to classical antiquity, Leonardo da Vinci (without doubt based on his recall of impressions garnered during his stay in Florence) and - not without a certain narcissism - himself. The works set the stage (just as surely as Michelangelo's Doni Tondo) for Mannerism.
The numerous drawings (both by Raphael and his students) for the characters in the painting, together with the number of variants of the first draft which were revealed by restoration work in 1977, show just exactly how carefully meditated a composition it is. The restoration also dispelled any doubts as to the authenticity of the attribution to Raphael; the retouching and corrections are proof that the painting (although unfinished) is actually entirely in his hand.
The Transfiguration is the last bequest of an artist whose brief life was rich in inspiration, where doubt or tension had no place. Raphael's life was spent in thoughts of great harmony and balance. This is one of the reasons why Raphael appears as the best interpreter of the art of his time and has been admired and studied in every century.
On 06 April 1520, precisely 37 years after he was born, Raphael died in Rome, the city that he had helped make the most important center of art and culture that had ever existed.