The Transfiguration
Raphael Sanzio
oil on wood
159 "  × 109 "
1520
will feast on. . . . She'd be talking about her mortality, of course, but the
phrase lent her foreknowledge of death a sense of defiance! Anyhow, as my
own eyes, now in Italy, took in the glory and the beauty of this painting by
Raphael, I thought about the grave. But  here was the clincher: our vision,
even in its mortality, it occurred to me,perhaps because of it, could give us
what one English poet, I think, called intimations of eternity.
Talking about intimations of death, Giorgio Vasari, 16th century historian of
Italian artists, tells us that this was the very last painting that the artist from
Urbino, Italy, worked on before he passed away at age 37. Vasari further
relates in his
Lives of the Artists that the canvas was placed on an easel next
to Raphael's casket in the Pantheon, when his friends and benefactors came
to bid him farewell in what would be his resting place. Quite an honor, by
the way, to be buried there, without being a king or a saint or what have
you.  
Anyway, for many years, I had known these historical minutiae but had not
stopped to think about them or, what is worse, to analyze with much care
the actual painting whenever I saw it. And then the other day I overheard a
Vatican guide tell his group of sleepy tourists that Raphael had left for last
the face of Jesus.  “When the painter died unexpectedly," the guide told his
travellers, trying to awaken their sense of wonder, "the face of Jesus that he
has painted was still wet!"
I, for one, thought of my mother's worms or eyes or both. The paradox of it
all. I imagined Raphael lying in state in 1520, and his painting there beside
him  ... still wet!        
























The transfiguration, according to the gospel of Matthew, not only
immediately  preceded the scene involving the sick boy, but it took place, of
course, some time before Jesus' death and resurrection, when three of his
closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, saw their friend and teacher raised
to heaven and infused by a radiant light, when they were on Mount Tabor
talking. In the painted panel, the three apostles are seen prostrate on the
ground as they hear a voice from heaven say: “This is my beloved son, in
whom I am pleased!” (Matthew 17). Next to Jesus on either side, according
to the passage, were Moses and Elijah.
“Look at the little boy there below," the guide insisted. "Even after seeing
the transfiguration, the apostles could not perform a miracle and cure him.
This is where in that same gospel passage, Christ utters the famous words
you have probably all heard," he told the tourist group after a pause, "  'If
your faith were the size of a mustard seed, you could do this and more. In
fact, you could move mountains!' ”
Speaking of mountains there is something about the transfigured Jesus, as
Raphael painted him, that rises like a mountain sun above Mount Tabor. His
figure, too, is like a fountain, much like the ones we see in Rome gushing
and dancing in the Italian sun. His sheer, bluish white vestments as well as
the physique of his almost feminine thighs -- are feasts for the eye. Of
course, the overtones of the Resurrection are also evident in the triangular
composition. This is a painting of Christian fervor and belief. But it is also
one of darkness and complicated sorrow.  In the bottom half of the
composition, except for the kneeling woman in the center and to some
degree the little boy she is pointing to, everything is confusion: . In fact,
while almost all the adults are too busy to do anything but what seems to be
accuse the boy of wrongdoing and point their fingers every which way --
except up! --  in derision, the little boy is the only one whose eyes are turned
to the upper register of the canvas,  precisely to where Jesus is (or was) being
transfigured! What does this suggest about him?
Though he may be possessed -- or because he was -- he could see and
perhaps hear the greater, more heavenly event above!
 In fact, a close rereading of the Bible passage shows that the three apostles'
only verbal reaction to the transfiguration was to offer Jesus to set up three
tents up there so he could be comfortable under the tented shelter with
Elijah and Moses! Of course, Jesus turns down the offer, and, one can feel,
with disgust.
 In light of this important detail in the narrative, one may wonder if this is
why Raphael, in fact, paints the three apostles on the ground not so much
dazzled by the light, but as though writhing on the ground, in their
earthliness, like worms!
This is where the painting is all about vision and turning. Conversion, one
could say. Or transfiguration that defies our mortal senses while it glorifies
them.
Today's visitors to the so-called “Raphael Room” of the Vatican Museum's
Pinacoteca, have a difficult time not precisely looking at the panel but trying
to dodge the guards' warnings about not taking flash pictures there, in
deference to the 7 or 8 tapestries, designed by Raphael as well, and also
hanging in this huge room. “No flash! No flash!” cry the otherwise aloof
guards whenever the flaring of the camera lights becomes too evident and
the controlled photo-sensitive environment of the exhibit space is blanched
by the cameras. Each time I have gone there in the past month, I hear this
banal crossfire. However, I'd like to close this story with a more positive
spin, perhaps in tribute to my solar mother and her way with words.
For example, viewing the divided but totally triangular composition of the
painting, I am tempted to “hear” the voice from the sky saying, “This is my
Beloved Son, in whom I am pleased” as referring as much to Jesus as to the
young boy. In other words, the lowliest of the low in the composition,
transfigured in his own way so that his eyes seem to be popping out of their
sockets to look on the miracle that no one else can see, is more of a son of
God  -- or Messiah -- than his fellow townspeople. He has what we could
call the Christic vision. In addition, such a reading of the painting also
makes Raphael one of the first artists in the history of Western visual art,
sort of à la Charles Baudelaire in his
Fleurs du mal, who dares to bless or
literally elevate the ugly as a subject worthy of  contemplation. Moreover,
that our painter would do this in the very last work he completed before he
died casts even more of a remarkable light on the painter-as-a-thinker, in
touch with his times. Only three years prior to 1520, religious leader Martin
Luther had posted his 95 theses on the doors of the Cathedral in Wittenberg,
Germany, heralding the Protestant Reformation. Could we see, then,  
The
Transfiguration
as a possible "statement," as we would say nowadays, about
the divided world of Christendom, as the artist felt it and understood it in
those days? Following this possible reading, too, which side of the canvas
represents Roman Catholicism and which side the Protestantism? Could
Raphael, after finishing his frescoes of the
School of Athens and Fire in the
Borgo
in the Vatican Stanzae some years before for Pope Julius II and Leo X,
have had his own eyes == like those of the little boy here -- on a side of
heaven that the rest of his Roman countrymen and faithful, and certainly
those popes too, could not see?
More interesting yet --  is the painter suggesting, by his simultaneous
coupling of the two moments in time, a parallel between the apostles'
previous, almost ridiculous proffering to set up tents and the same men's
inability to deal with the possessed boy? Does this possible link, indeed,
throw light on Christ's use of the tiny mustard seed to describe the nature of
belief? Although the small mustard seed can yield a tree huge in size and
strength, it must begin small and fragile, almost sure prey to the birds. So if
the apostles are to "cure" the sick, they must first protect and care for them,
they must love them beyond all sense of overzealous righteousness and
finger-pointing disgust. The healing of the boy will not simply happen
because the apostles have seen Jesus, Elijah, and Moses flying in the air
"miraculously"!
Again, just a few days after the painter from Urbino finished this work, the
worms made Raphael Sanzio's eyes fodder, as my mom would have said.
The defiance of death and, paradoxically, the celebration of the human
condition that IS this painting --- cast a very solar light on the mustard seed
that we all carry within us.       
Toroazul Painting and Fine Arts
   Raphael's Transfiguration ...
and the "other" Messiah
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the Artist
The Transfiguration by Raphael
14 "   x  11 "
Author's sketchbook
color pencil
2009
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the Artist
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Toroazul Painting and Fine Arts
Proverbially, travel writers in
Italy have sung the praises of its
sunny skies. Yet it is also the case
that in this part of the world, if
you come from Cuba or the
Caribbean, people say, in
admiration,  that you come from
a
solar culture. By comparison
with Italy, with more sun and an
almost magical luminosity.  I
thought of this the other day
when one of my mother's more,
yes,  luminous expressions
suddenly came to me while I
looked at painter Raphael
Sanzio's very last work,
The
Transfiguration
, in the Vatican
Museums.
Estos ojos que algún día se comerán
los gusanos
. . . ., I thought! These
eyes, my mother would say,
that
one day the worms
The young Vatican guide
continued, with something in
his demeanor, plump cheeks,
and  lamb-choppy sideburns
being rather Dickens-like .
"Look at the scene of
mayhem in the panel," he
said.  "The more glorious top
half is what happens before --
the transfiguration of Jesus --
and below is  the chaotic
earthly side, where the
disciples have been trying to
cure the young boy
'possessed by demons,' which
you see third from the right
at the bottom of the work.
That's because it's a sort of
before and after painting. It's
split in two."
Back to Roman
writings