THE CALL OF THE MOUNT: ‘The Transfiguration’ by Titian

THE CALL OF THE MOUNT: ‘The Transfiguration’ by Titian

‘In his paintings, the anatomist finds form; the colourist, colour; the thinker, thought and the saint, sanctity’

Welcome to the world of Titian! Tiziano Vecelli (anglicized as Titian) is one of the greatest painters of the Venetian school of high Renaissance art. Born in the Republic of Venice (1488 -90), his vivid application of colour had a profound influence on the artistic world. Versatile in nature, he was equally adept with landscape, portrait, mythological and religious subjects. For his magnanimous contribution he is regarded as ‘the sun amongst small stars.’

The increasing freedom of his brushstroke and his deft ability to grasp personality can be noted in today’s painting. Hearkening the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 17, verses 1 – 13, the painting enlivens the scene of the Transfiguration of Christ. A motif of metamorphosis, it encounters the glorious splendour of Jesus.

The scene is set on a mount, a symbol of the manifestation of God (theophany). Without rendering detail to the surroundings, Titian’s brush hits the climax. He captures the moment when ‘a bright cloud covered them in a shadow and a voice from the cloud said “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him.” On hearing the voice the disciples fell to the ground full of fear.’

The painting emphasizes an offset of action between the ascending sway of Christ as against the descending collapse of the apostles. The characters are well represented. The dazzling, radiant, incandescent figure of the Divine Christ ravishes our vision as that of the apostles. His stoic eyes gaze heavenwards acknowledging His heavenly Father. He stands in the midst of Moses (law) and Elijah (prophets), symbolizing the fulfilment of the law and the prophets.

Interestingly Moses is recognized here not merely by the tablets of the Ten Commandments but also by the symbol of the radiating horns. This motif is derived from the book of Exodus chapter 34 verse 29 which reads: ‘When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two slabs of the Testimony in his hands, he was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant after speaking with the Lord.’ Apparently the Hebrew version uses the word ‘qaran’ meaning ‘horn’ in place of the word ‘radiant’. Thus it elucidates a horn of light.

As the prophets float towards Christ, the apostles fall backwards gravitating towards the viewer. Voluminous in character they express intense emotions. Impulsive Peter at the bottom left leans on one elbow while raising his other arm to cover his eyes. He is distinguished by his famous knife, a symbol of the imminent in the garden of Gethsemane.

Next to him lies the twisted figure of James attempting to shield himself from the great light. Innocent John raises his hands in prayer. In Christian art, these three apostles connote the three primary Christian virtues. Peter signifies faith through his shielded eyes, the raised arm of James indicates hope while the red robes of John personify charity. The dynamic representation of the figures is exaggerated by the dominant use of light and shadow.

This brings us to the 7th important character of the event which is God the Father. Embodied among illuminating billows of clouds also known as shekinah (post-biblical Hebrew), He completes the action.

The painting forms a part of the triptych of the Church of San Salvador in Venice. It accounts for Titian’s reliance on light and colour to render theatrical narratives. It asserts the significance of the Venetian ‘colorito’ (colours) as against the Florentine ‘disegno’ (design). It popularizes the medium of oil paint as against the Italian frescoes. Finally it unfolds the glorious truth of the Transfiguration: to encounter Christ on the mountain and to bear fruits for His kingdom in the valleys!

Joynel Fernandes

Asst- Director, Archdiocesan Heritage Museum



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