The Transfiguration by Raphael

The Transfiguration by Raphael (1520)

In my last blog I looked at The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo and talked about how this and a painting by Raphael, entitled Transfiguration, had been commissioned in 1517 by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici as a high end altarpiece for the French Cathedral of S. Giusto Narbonne.  Raphael was, at the time, busy on other commissions.  He had been summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II to paint frescoes on the rooms of his private Vatican apartment, the Stanza della Segnatura and the Stanza di Eliodor and at the same time he was busy working on portraits and altarpieces as well as working alongside Sebastiano del Piombo on frescoes for Agostino Chigi’s Villa Farnesina.   It is thought that Giulio de Medici was so concerned with the time it was taking Raphael to complete The Transfiguration altarpiece that he commissioned Sebastiano di Piombo to paint the Raising of Lazarus for the cathedral in an effort to stimulate Raphael to work faster on his commission.

Today I am featuring Raphael’s work, The Transfiguration, which was considered the last painting by the Italian High Renaissance master.  Giorgio Vasari, the sixteenth century Italian painter, writer, historian, and who is famous today for his biographies of Renaissance artists, called Raphael a mortal God and of today’s painting, he described it as:

“…the most famous, the most beautiful and most divine…”

Although Raphael Sanzio was only thirty-four years of age when he was given the commission, bad health prevented him from finishing it. It was left unfinished by Raphael, and is believed to have been completed by his pupils, Giulio Romano and Giovanni Francesco Penni, shortly after his death on Good Friday 1520.

If we look closely at this work of art we can see two things going on simultaneously both of which are described in successive episodes of the Gospel of Matthew.   In the upper part of the painting we have the Transfiguration, which is described in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 17: 1-7):

“…After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.  Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.   Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”    While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”   When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified.  But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid…”

We see the transfigured Christ floating aloft, bathed in a blue/white aura of light and clouds.  To his left and right are the figures of the prophets, Moses and Elijah.  Below Christ we see the three disciples on the mountain top shielding their eyes from the radiance and maybe because of their own fear of what is happening above them.   The two figures kneeling to the left of the mountain top are said to be the martyrs Saint Felicissimus and Saint Agapitus of Palestrina.

 In the lower part of the painting we have a depiction by Raphael of the Apostles trying, with little success, to liberate the possessed boy from his demonic possession. The Apostles fail in their attempts to save the ailing child until the recently-transfigured Christ arrives and performs a miracle.  Matthew’s Gospel (Mathew 17:14-21) recounts the happening:

“…When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him.  “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water.  I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”    “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?  Bring the boy here to me.”   Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment.   Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”   He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you…”

Observe this lower scene.  The young boy, with arms outstretched and distorted in a combination of fear and pain, is possessed by some sort of demonic spirit.   He is being led forward by his elders towards Christ who is about to descend from the mountain.   The boy is crying and rolling his eyes heavenwards.   His body is contorted as he is unable to control his movement.   The old man behind the boy struggles to control him.  The old man, with his wrinkled brow has his eyes wide open in fear as to what is happening to his young charge.  He looks directly at the Apostles, visually pleading with them to help the young boy.    See how Raphael has depicted the boy’s naked upper body.  We can see the pain the boy is enduring in the way the artist has portrayed the pale colour of his flesh, and his veins, as he makes those violent and fearsome gestures.   The raised arms of the people below pointing to Christ, who is descending, links the two stories within the painting.  A woman in the central foreground of the painting kneels before the Apostles.  She points to the boy in desperation, pleading with them to help alleviate his suffering.


The contorted poses of some of the figures at the bottom of the painting along with the torsion of the woman in what Vasari calls a contrapposto pose were in some way precursors to the Mannerist style that would follow after Raphael’s death.   Vasari believed that this woman was the focal point of the painting.     She has her back to us.  She kneels in a twisted contrapposto pose. Her right knee is thrust forward whilst she thrusts her right shoulder back.   Her left knee is positioned slightly behind the right and her left shoulder forward.  Thus her arms are directed to the right whilst her face and gaze are turned to the left.  Raphael gives her skin and drapery much cooler tones than those he uses for the figures in heavy chiaroscuro in the lower scene and by doing so illuminates her pink garment.  The way he paints her garment puts emphasis on her pose.  She and her clothes are brilliantly illuminated so that they almost shine as bright as the robes of the transfigured Christ and the two Old Testament Prophets who accompany him.   There is an element about her depiction which seems to isolate from the others in the crowd at the lower part of the painting and this makes her stand out more.

The unfinished painting was hung over the couch in Raphael’s studio in the Borgo district of Rome for a couple of days while he was lying in state, and when his body was taken for its burial, the picture was carried by its side.   Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici kept the painting for himself, rather than send it to Narbonne and it was placed above Raphael’s tomb in the Pantheon.   In 1523, three years after the death of Raphael, the cardinal donated the painting to the church of San Pietro in Montorio, Rome. In 1797, following the end of the war in which Napoleon’s Revolutionary French defeated the Papal States; a Treaty of Tolentino was signed.    By the terms of this treaty, a number of artistic treasures, including Raphael’s Transfiguration, were confiscated from the Vatican by the victorious French.   Over a hundred paintings and other works of art were moved to the Louvre in Paris.   The French commissioners reserved the right to enter any building, public, religious or private, to make their choice and assessment of what was to be taken back to France. This part of the treaty was extended to apply to all of Italy in 1798 by treaties with other Italian states.   It was not until 1815, after the fall of Napoleon, that the painting was returned to Rome. It then became part of the Pinacoteca Vaticana of Pius VII where it remains today.

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

5 thoughts on “The Transfiguration by Raphael”

  1. Hey,
    I am researching this painting for an assignment which I am currently doing for a university assessment. I have been to Rome and have seen the painting. My tour guide in the Vatican museum said that the painting had been brought into Raphael’s room while he was dying at his request. I would like to include this information as part of my Analysis of the work, and I need an academically credible source to reference if I am going to do this. The problem is that your blog according to my Uni is not academically credible, as is the tour guide who told me the same piece of information. So, if you can help me by telling me where you got this fabulous piece of information from that would be absolutely amazing !! Thank you for your time 🙂

  2. Goethe, in “Winckelmann and His Age” (1805) wrote about Raphael´s transfiguration:

    “The preference for the naïve mentioned above, which has been carried too far, also unravels the strange phenomenon that the majority of artists and art judges, in judging Raphael’s works, assumed a gradation of the value of the natural and even obvious progress of his art. In their opinion, f.ex among the works of this artist, for example, the Entombment and the Disputa about the Sacrament are to be preferred to all others, but especially to the Transfiguration. As this error has gained many followers, we think it worthwhile to undertake a rectification of it.

    Those earlier works of the great master are praised especially for the tender, intimate feeling which is expressed in motives and characters, in actions and countenances, for the unpretentious, unsurpassable truth of the representation, and we think of them no less favorably on this point than anyone, so for our purpose we have only a few things to say about the merits of the Transfiguration, and to examine the accusations made against it.
    No one denies that of all Raphael’s works the Transfiguration is one of the most carefully executed; Likewise, this work is also considered one of the most excellent with regard to the scientific nature of the drawing, the noble style of the forms and the witty expression; on the other hand, the combination of two main plots still seems somewhat awkward to the opponents, more suitable for two pictures than for one; they do not find the whole thing so naive, as pleasing as some of the master’s earlier works, likewise some folds seem not laid out happily, some of the arrangement are also to blame.
    That combination of the miracle of the Transfiguration and the unsuccessful attempt of the apostles to heal the possessed boy is, in our view of the matter, a most remarkable example of an ingeniously fortunate treatment of material that is in itself not very rewarding. The miracle on the mountain would lack its most beautiful meaning, the close relation of the divine mediator to man, without the story of the possessed, and this would be a completely contradictory subject, i. H. it is inconceivable how she could be clearly represented expressing herself, if she were to be painted alone, without the transfiguration; but just as when steel and stone meet, a living spark emanates, so the touch of both parts or objects of the picture spreads a stream of poetic clarity over the whole, elevating it all at once into a higher, purer sphere of art.
    Now, as to the detail of the motives, one might almost believe that none of the critics of the Transfiguration had ever regarded it with calm seriousness, else it would have been impossible to overlook the sublime beauties of this kind; For, to cite one of many as an example, where did Raphael prove his knowledge of people and hearts better than in the inestimably fine feature that the youngest of the apostles with the beautiful, gentle face is addressed by the women and answers them, since the other older apostles, partly among themselves, partly to the men who are with the demoniac? The foremost seated Apostle is accused of a somewhat sought-after position, but we think we have cause to defend him, and to praise him as glorious in more than one respect, exemplary both in arrangement and expression, and one of the great masterpieces , where the fine arts move in time, so to speak. He was reading and was interrupted in this business by those who brought in the demoniac, so he now holds the book away and takes part in the action. We must remark that his robe also has excellent folds, almost as beautiful as those on the girl kneeling in the foreground of the picture, which have long been famous. We admit, however, that the cloak of one of the two apostles pointing to Christ was not as successful as those draperies just quoted; for of course the world has not yet seen a work of art in which all parts are equally perfect; but it is entirely unfounded criticism that the two arms of these apostles raised against the mountain, contrary to artful arrangement, run in the same line, because this line, as every copper engraving of the Transfiguration can show, is required for the symmetry of the composition. By pointing upwards, the lower part of the painting is connected to the upper part, and this gesture seems to us to be deliberately repeated so that it is more conspicuous; that is why the red clothing for the two arms may have been chosen. The anachronism of the two monks watching the miracle of the Transfiguration on the mountain cannot reasonably be attributed to Raphael, nor do these figures intervene in the composition…”

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