Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 8 of the Pinacoteca in the Vatican Museums
Commissioned by? Archbishop Giulio de’ Medici (who later became Pope Clement VII) for a chapel in the Narbonne Cathedral in Narbonne, France.
What do you see? Two unrelated biblical events. On top is the story of the transfiguration of Christ. At the bottom is the story of a young man who is possessed by a demon.
Top Half: Jesus is shown on top of Mount Tabor in a gleaming snow-white robe with next to him the prophets Moses (on the right) and Elijah (on the left). The clouds behind Jesus are illuminated. Jesus raises his arms and looks up towards God. Below Jesus are three of his disciples, from left to right, James, Peter, and John. They cover their faces with their hands as the sky is too bright for their eyes. The two figures on the left are probably Justus and Pastor. They are two Christian martyrs to whom the church, in which the painting was initially intended to be placed, is dedicated.
Bottom Half: The nine disciples of Jesus who did not climb the mountain are on the left side. They try to heal a young man who is possessed by an evil spirit. The figure in the blue robe on the bottom left is probably Matthew. He consults a book but cannot find the solution to cure the young man. The young disciple in the yellow robe is Philip. To Philip's right, in the red robe, is Andrew. The man behind Andrew, pointing to the sick boy, is Judas Thaddeus, and the older man to his left is Simon. The man on the far left is probably Judas Iscariot. The disciples, however, are unable to heal the young man. This may explain why the disciple in red is pointing towards Jesus on top of the mountain. The sick young man on the right has a blue cloth wrapped around his middle and looks very pale while making a wild gesture. You can see that his eyes are looking in different directions. The man behind him in the green robe is his father who is holding him, and he looks at the disciples with hope and fear at the same time. In front of the young man, two women look at the disciples while pointing at the young man.
Backstory: This is the last work of Raphael, and he died before he could finish it (his student Giulio Romano finished the last parts). It was originally intended for the Narbonne Cathedral in Narbonne, France, together with The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo (for which Michelangelo provided the drawing) in the National Gallery in London. However, after Raphael died, it was decided to keep this painting in Rome because the painting was too good. In 1523, the painting was placed in the San Pietro in Montorio Church in Rome. Over the centuries, numerous artists and art experts considered this to be the best painting ever.
Biblical stories: The story on top is the transfiguration and on the bottom is The Healing of the Lunatic Boy. Both stories are described in Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9. The biblical story describes how Jesus is transfigured in radiant glory when praying with three of his disciples on a mountain. Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah and also hears the voice of God. The Feast of the Transfiguration is still celebrated in many churches, either on August 6 or August 19. The story of the demon-possessed boy occurs at the same time as the transfiguration. When Jesus and his three disciples came down from the mountain, the father of the boy kneels down in front of Jesus and asks him to heal his son as the disciples were unable to do that. In 1605, Peter Paul Rubens painted a variation of the Transfiguration.
Symbolism: The transfiguration shows the connection that Jesus provides between Heaven and Earth and that people should follow the lessons provided by the Son of God. To emphasize this, Jesus is looking upwards to the sky to remind us that he provides the connection between the people on earth and God in Heaven. The three disciples on the mountain represent faith, hope, and love. The scene at the bottom half of the painting symbolizes the inability of people to do miracles without the trust in God's abilities.
Who is Raphael? Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520) was a very productive painter. Despite his short life, he completed many works. Together with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, he is considered to be the most influential painter of his time. The Transfiguration is considered to be one of Raphael's best works, only surpassed according to many by his fresco of the School of Athens, which is also in the Vatican Museums. The Transfiguration was ahead of its time. It contains some elements of both the Mannerism and Baroque style of painting, and it has had a big influence on the development of both styles. With such a masterpiece, it was a pity that Raphael died on Good Friday 1520. The painting of the Transfiguration was exposed next to the body of Raphael in the days after his death, and it was initially placed above his tomb in the Pantheon.
Fun fact: The story behind this painting has been debated for centuries as it was not clear why Raphael combined two such different biblical stories in a single painting. There are many explanations, but no consensus. A first explanation is that Raphael was competing with Del Piombo who was commissioned a painting for the same church. After he saw the completed painting of Del Piombo, Raphael decided to add additional figures to the painting to outshine the painting of Del Piombo (a protégé of Michelangelo, Raphael’s biggest rival). A second interpretation is given by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who wrote that the painting was clearly an integrated piece. At the bottom are the people who are suffering and need the help of Jesus (emphasized by the more chaotic and dark scene) and on the top is the power of Jesus which the people at the bottom need (emphasized by the serene and bright scene). A third interpretation is that Raphael combined these two scenes because of the meaning of his name. Raphael means ‘God heals’ in Hebrew. This would explain that the disciples at the bottom could not heal the young man, but that Jesus, through the power of God, could heal him. You can pick the interpretation that you prefer.
Written by Eelco Kappe