From sight to insight; understanding the Transfiguration by Raphael Sanzio

The first of our articles on Christian Art features ‘ The Transfiguration’  a painting by Raphael Sanzio.

This is the topic for the second Sunday of Lent

Attributed to be his last painting, ‘The Transfiguration’ is hailed by many art scholars as Raphael’s ‘most beautiful and most divine work’. Executed with oil paints on wood, the dimensions of the Transfiguration are 159 inches by 109 inches. The painting was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici, later Pope Clement VII and conceived as an altar piece for the Norbonne Cathedral in France. In the Transfiguration, Raphael simply re reads the text of Matthew’s Gospel. The scene is established at Mount Tabor which is situated to the south east of Nazareth. The upper foreground of the painting illustrates the scene of the Transfiguration as mentioned in chapter 17, verse 1 to 8. While this transpires, in the lower foreground the artist resounds the incident (verse 14 onwards) where a family wants to approach Jesus with their demoniac son, seeking a miracle. 

The painting is artistically divided into 2 parts: the celestial and the earthly. The striking contrast, as observed, displays the splendor and calmness of the celestial regions as against the feelings of agitation, trouble, confusion and suffering that abounds the earth. This contrast is also encountered in the technical execution of the play of light and shadow. The transfigured Christ dazzles with light while the shadow of mortal life is only illuminated by rays that emerge from His presence. It exemplifies the dependence of the finite on the Infinite.

At the apex, nothing can be confounded. Christ floats toward the source of light- the Invisible Father, by whom all is made visible. His arms are raised prefiguring the crucifixion and the ascension. On either side is Moses and Elijah, the former the law giver and the latter the ‘spontaneous, fiery, eagle eyed prophet’. The three apostles prostrate themselves in awe of this magnanimous glory. John gracefully lowers his face in honour while on the other end James hides his face in humility. But Peter, undaunted, courageously gazes upwards. Struck by splendor and truth, he appears to cover his eyes, involuntarily with his hand.


At the upper left of the painting are two strangers who appear to convey the message of the event below to the Beatified One. According to art historians they represent St Julian and St Lawrence, the patron saints of the father and uncle of Cardinal da Medici. Other scholars theorize them to be Saint Agapitus and Saint Felicissimus, who were deacons seized during the persecutions of Emperor Valerian, Roman Emperor from 253 – 260 AD who brutally persecuted the Christians. 

Below the mount, are two opposed groups. On the right is the family, of which the epileptic or demoniac boy forms the center. Helpless, his eyes are rolled back, his mouth open and his arms frail. Undoubtedly, the family members saw Christ pass that way and were aware of His ability to heal their son. Supporting his son, the father visually pleads with the apostles to help the boy. Kneeling at the right of the boy is his mother, whose fair Grecian face appears harassed by her trials. In despair the men and women implore help but in vain. 

Some apostles appear afraid; others exchange anxious glances or shrug their shoulders, some point upwards assuring Divine Help while one consults the book of the law. While the figures on the right express their faith, the nine Apostles, are wrapped in shadow, symbolizing their lack of faith which prevents them from curing the boy. 

In the Transfiguration, Raphael tunes the tradition of equating epilepsy with the aquatic moon (luna hence lunatic). This is vivified by the watery reflection of the moon in the lower left corner of the painting. This serves to explain that not even the astrological bodies could stand against the authority of the Son of God.

In 1520, on Good Friday, Raphael died before the Transfiguration had left his studio. In his Life of Raphael Giorgio, Vasari, art historian of the 1600’s recounts the events:

As he lay dead in the hall where he had been working they placed at his head the picture of the Transfiguration which he had done for Cardinal de’ Medici; and the sight of this living work of art along with his dead body made the hearts of everyone who saw it burst with sorrow.

Giulio Romano, Raphael’s favorite student is assumed to have finished the lower left part of the picture. Cardinal da Medici decided to keep the Transfiguration at Rome. After causing Penni to make a copy of it, he presented Raphael’s masterpiece to the Church of San Pietro in Montorio, where it remained till the French Revolution. On 17 June 1794, during Napoleon’s Italian Campaign, his Committee of Public Instruction confiscated the painting and transferred it to the Louvre, where it served as a center piece. In 1810, Benjamin Zix recorded in a famous painting the marriage procession of Napoleon and Marie Louise’s through the Grande Galerie, The Transfiguration is seen on display in the background. In 1815, post the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte envoys to Pope Pius VII succeeded in securing The Transfiguration along with 66 other paintings as part of the Treaty of Paris. By the agreement of the Congress of Vienna, the works were to be exhibited to the public. Initially the gallery chosen was in the Borgia Apartment in the Apostolic Palace. After several moves within the Vatican, the painting now resides in the Pinacoteca Vaticana.

Detail of the Wedding Procession of Napoleon and Marie-Louise of Austria through the Grande by Benjamin Zix with the Transfiguration in the background.

The Transfiguration symbolically represents the namesake of this brilliant artist. The word Raphael, etymologically reads as ‘God has healed’, therefore serving as a testament to the healing power of the Transfigured Christ.

Joynel Fernandes – Assistant Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum


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