In December of 1516, Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (the future pope Clement VII) commissioned Rafaello Sanzio da Urbino, better known as Raphael, to paint this religious scene. The panel, which is over 4 meters tall, was to serve as an altar piece for Narbonne’s Cathedral, where Giulio had just become Arch Bishop. In the end, Giulio decided that he preferred to have the painting closer to home and he had it installed in the Roman church San Pietro in Montorio instead. These days, we can admire it at the Vatican Museum.
It isn’t hard to understand why Giulio found this piece so hard to part with. With its exquisite colors, complex postures and expressive light effects, it is a feast for the eyes. Raphael succeeded in creating a spectacularly lively representation of a rather abstract episode from the Bible: the Transfiguration. It takes place on top of Mount Tabor where the apostles Peter, John and James witness the metamorphosis of their Christ. For a brief moment, Jesus’ true, divine nature is revealed to them, ‘His face shining as the sun, and his garments became white as the light.’ The Old Testament prophets Moses and Elijah appear at his side.
Raphael combined the Transfiguration theme with another biblical story, where Jesus’ disciples try - in vain - to cure a possessed (epileptic) boy. The frantic, wide-eyed boy is shown in the front, surrounded by his family. This drama adds a human dimension to the scene. To the left, the apostles are desperately trying to determine how to help the young man. One of them points up, indicating that the only one capable of curing him is Jesus.
The pointing arm is a visual aid as well, used to guide our focus and to connect the upper and lower part of the image. With his composition, Raphael wants us to realize that Christ belongs just as much to heaven as to earth. The pyramid shape in the lower half of the painting leads our eyes to the circle of light in the top half, where we’ll find the true subject of interest.
(text: Maarten Levendig)