Monday, August 06, 2012

Raphael's Transfiguration of Christ

When Raphael was commissioned to paint the Transfiguration of Christ in 1515, the feast commemorating this event in the Lord’s life was still a new one in much of Western Europe. Although it had been kept in some places much earlier, it was given to the universal Church only in the reign of Pope Callixtus III (1455-58), in thanksgiving for the Christian victory against the Turks at the siege of Belgrade on August 6th, 1456. Coming only three years after the fall of Constantinople, this victory signaled an important halt to the Turkish invasion of Europe; in fact, the common custom of ringing church bells at noon began as a reminder to pray for the defense of this bulwark of Christendom.

In the Byzantine tradition, on the other hand, the feast is much older, and one of the Twelve Great Feasts commemorating the principal events of the life of Our Lord and His Mother. It is kept forty days before another of the Great Feasts, the Exaltation of the Cross, a custom based on the teaching of the Church Fathers that the purpose of the Transfiguration was to strengthen the faith of the Apostles in preparation for the Our Lord’s Passion. Long before the adoption of the feast in the West, this aspect of the tradition was also known to the Roman Rite, which reads St. Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration on both the Ember Saturday of Lent and the following Sunday.
The Transfiguration, in the apse mosaic of the monastery church of St. Catherine on Mt Sinai, ca. 565.
The painting was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, the cousin of Pope Leo X, who had just been made Archbishop of the French city of Narbonne. In accordance with a common abuse of the era, the Cardinal had no intention of taking possession of the see to govern it personally, being as he was also the chancellor of the church in Rome; instead, he would have paid a vicar to fulfill the duties of bishop, while drawing the revenues of the see. (In the 10 years between his cousin’s election as Pope in 1513 and his own election as Clement VII, Giulio de’ Medici held ten different sees under various titles, five of them before his priestly ordination.) Within a few decades, this abuse was completely extirpated by the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation; one must not imagine, however, that all the beneficiaries of it were entirely neglectful of their sees and abbeys. Cardinal de’ Medici commissioned the painting for the high altar of Narbonne’s cathedral, and would certainly have paid the artist a handsome sum for it. In the reign of a Pope whose family had been leading patrons of the Renaissance for generations, in a city filled with every kind of artist, Raphael stood head and shoulders above all of his contemporaries. His only equal in prominence, Michelangelo, had left Rome in 1513 shortly after the election of Pope Leo; in 1516, Raphael was made superintendent of Pontifical works, a job in which he could command his own prices, choosing for himself a few outstanding commissions, and leaving the rest in the hands of an army of assistants and apprentices.
The cathedral of Narbonne, dedicated to Saints Justus and Pastor. Their feast day is August 6th, the same as that of the Transfiguration, which was kept on the following day in the city itself; Raphael's painting shows the two on the upper left side as witnesses of the Lord's Transfiguration.

As I have noted before, in an age in which imitation was considered the very essence of art, which is to say, the imitation of the classical past, no-one had a keener eye for seeing what was good about the styles of other artists, taking it into his own, and improving upon it. In this painting, the last work of Raphael, one sees not merely the mastery of technique, but the perfect union at every point of technique to story. While certainly concerned to demonstrate his skill and versatility, especially in light of Michelangelo’s very recent triumph in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, each technical feature of the painting serves to communicate the Biblical story and theological idea behind it.

In Lent and on the feast in August, the Roman Rite traditionally reads the story of the Transfiguration from chapter 17 of St. Matthew. However, in the upper part of the painting, Raphael has taken account also the words of St. Luke that “the appearance of (Christ’s) countenance was altered,” (chap. 9, 29), as it will also be after the Resurrection. (Mark 16, 12 and Luke 24, 16.) The Lord’s face is painted in a style very similar to that of one of Raphael’s early teachers, Perugino, a style greatly admired in the later 15th and early 16th centuries, and considered a kind of idealized facial type. Thus, as Christ reveals himself to be the perfect man, the man who is also God, he is represented with a “perfect” face. The rest of the figures are painted in a variety of styles, with a much more realistic range of facial types, reminiscent of various predecessors and contemporaries of Raphael, a great demonstration of his extraordinary versatility.
Christ in the Transfiguration of Raphael.
The upper part of the Oddi altarpiece, painted 15 years earlier by Raphael. Note the similarity in the faces, all of which are reminiscent of the idealized facial type typical of Perugino.

The painting is also marked by three different major lighting schemes. In the upper part, the light of the transfigured Christ shines onto the clouds behind him, and back at us, while also illuminating the figures around Him, the Prophets Moses and Elijah, and the Apostles Peter, James and John. Through them, the divinity of Christ is revealed to us; thus the light of His divinity coming out at the viewer is not merely a special effect for its own sake, but helps to convey the meaning of the Bibical narrative. The lower part represents the next episode in the Synoptic Gospels, the healing of a possessed child. The very ancient date of the Exaltation of the Cross determines not only the day of the Transfiguration, but also that of the Ember Wednesday of September, always the Wednesday after it, on which the Church reads this episode in the words of St. Mark.
And one of the multitude, answering, said: Master, I have brought my son to thee, having a dumb spirit. Who, wheresoever he taketh him, dasheth him, and he foameth, and gnasheth with the teeth, and pineth away; and I spoke to thy disciples to cast him out, and they could not. … And He asked his father: How long time is it since this hath happened unto him? But he said: From his infancy: And oftentimes hath he cast him into the fire and into waters to destroy him. But if thou canst do anything, help us, having compassion on us. And Jesus saith to him: If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. And immediately the father of the boy crying out, with tears said: I do believe, Lord: help my unbelief. And when Jesus saw the multitude running together, he threatened the unclean spirit, saying to him: Deaf and dumb spirit, I command thee, go out of him; and enter not any more into him. And crying out, and greatly tearing him, he went out of him, and he became as dead, so that many said: He is dead. But Jesus taking him by the hand, lifted him up; and he arose. (Mark 9, 16-17 and 20-26)
The light enters the scene from the left and above, brightly illuminating the figures on the right, but leaving those on the left wrapped up in a mysterious dark mist. The former lighting scheme is based on the style of portraits done by Florentines, the latter scheme is that of the Venetians, another demonstration of the artist’s mastery of a variety of styles.

Raphael's Self-Portrait with a Friend, ca. 1518, also known as the Double Portrait, currently in the Louvre. The identity of the man on the right is unknown, although many theories have been proposed by art historians. Note the same contrast in lighting schemes, although nowhere near as drastic, which appears in the lower part of the Transfiguration.

The lower part of the Transfiguration.
Raphael beautifully captures the pleading of the father in the expression on his face. The brightness of the figure symbolizes his faith, as it does likewise in the figure of the possessed child, for devils, as Saint James says, have no illusions about God: “Thou believest that there is one God. Thou dost well: the devils also believe, and tremble.” (chap. 2, 19). The brightest figure, though, is the woman kneeling next to the boy and pointing at him, an allegorical figure of Faith itself. Where the light on these figures expresses their belief, the remaining nine Apostles stand on the left side, wrapped in shadow to symbolize the lack of faith that prevented them from casting out the devil.
…and I spoke to thy disciples to cast him out, and they could not. Who answering them, said: O incredulous generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? … And when he was come into the house, his disciples secretly asked him: Why could not we cast him out? And he said to them: This kind can go out by nothing, but by prayer and fasting. (Mark 9, 17-18 and 27-28)
Among the disciples, the Evangelist St. Matthew sits in the lower left hand corner, holding the book by which he reveals the life of Christ to us. Underneath it, the external light source is reflected in a puddle of water, as is Matthew’s foot. This is another example of a special effect, difficult for modern people to appreciate, since we can recreate this effect fairly easily with a camera; but in the beginning of the 16th century, painting a reflection on a puddle was an extraordinary technical achievement. Once again, though the special effect is united to the story, for it was generally understood that the light bursting into the painting from nowhere signified divine revelation. It is therefore shown reflected directly underneath the book by which St. Matthew reveals this and other episodes of Christ’s life to us. The book itself rests on a block of wood, a reference to the Crucifixion; the Cross is often referred to with the Latin word “lignum – wood”, as in the hymn Vexilla Regis, (“regnavit a ligno Deus”), and the “Ecce lignum Crucis” ritual sung before the Adoration of the Cross on Good Friday.

In the painting as a whole, the figures painted most colorfully are those who actually speak in the text of the Gospel: Matthew himself, the narrator, whose robes are painted with a tremendous range of blues amid the more uniform colors of the other disciples’ robes; Christ, whose robes are painted with a range of whites; St. Peter, in bright yellow; and the father of the child, in a range of greens. Faith kneeling next to him, wears a red garment partly covered by a blue one, a color scheme often found in images of the Virgin Mary, the greatest model of Faith. Red represents flesh and blood, blue royalty and divinity; the colors scheme of the figure demonstrates, therefore, that man in his mortality is elevated by Faith to knowledge of and union with God.

The lines of the various figures are arranged in a very jagged and chaotic way; the father looks across the painting at the Apostle in light red, who points to Christ, the line of Whose legs leads back down to Faith, who points to the boy, whose arm points up to Moses, and so on. Raphael therefore creates a superstructure within the painting by arranging the six figures at the top in a large circle, and the heads of four Apostles in the middle of the painting in a small circle. The two circles form a lopsided figure 8, much larger at the top where the most important figure is, and so uniting the two stories.

The union of these two Gospel episodes, which seems to be unique to this particular painting, highlights an important aspect of this feast as it was received from the Byzantine tradition. It is traditionally called the “Transfiguration of the Savior”, and understood to be Christ’s revelation of Himself not only as God, but also as the Savior of the human race. Therefore, the lower part of the painting looks forward to Christ as the deliverer of man from the power of the devil (the possessed child), from sin (the block of wood foreshadowing the Cross), and from death, (the face of Christ transfigured as it will be in the Resurrection.) This idea of the revelation of Christ as Savior is also reflected in the adoption of this feast as the titular feast of the Pope’s own cathedral, popularly known as Saint John in the Lateran, but officially “the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior.”

Writing of the death of Raphael, Giorgio Vasari, the very first art historian, says, “Confessed and contrite, he ended the course of his life on the same day on which he was born, which was Good Friday, at the age of 37. … In the room where he worked, they placed at his head the painting of the Transfiguration which he had done for Cardinal de’ Medici, and at the sight of his dead body and of that work, every soul that beheld them … wept for grief. … O happy and blessed soul, for every man is glad to think of you, and celebrate your deeds, and admire every work you left behind. Well might (the art of) Painting, when this noble artist died, die Herself, for when he closed his eyes, she was Herself left blind.”
The Tomb of Raphael in the Pantheon.

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