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.

Contrapposto

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.

The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo

The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo (1520)

My next two blogs feature paintings by two different artists, commissioned almost at the same time by the same person, one of which is often looked upon as the greatest painting ever.

My featured artist today is Sebastiano Luciani, who would be better known later as Sebastiano del Piombo for reasons I will explain later.   Sebastiano was born around 1485 and his birthplace is thought to have been Venice as he often signed his works Sebastianus Venetus.   His first thoughts, regarding what he should do with his life, were to join a religious order and he may well have started along the path towards the priesthood. His first love was not drawing and painting but music.  He had a great interest in music and was an accomplished singer and also played many musical instruments, including the lute, which was his favourite.  This musical talent of his made him very popular in Venetian society.   He did however eventually turn his attention to art when he was about eighteen years of age and his first artistic tuition came from Giovanni Bellini, who was a member of the great Bellini family of Venetian artists and brother-in-law of Andrea Mantegna.   Having learnt the basics of art from Bellini he left the studio and became a pupil of Giorgione da Castelfranco, whom he had first met through their joint love of music.  Sebastiano and Giorgione had a long association and the early works of the young aspiring painter were greatly influenced by the style and technique of his master, so much so, that some of his early paintings were confused with those of Giorgione.

Giorgione died in 1510 and the other great Venetian artist, Tiziano Vecelli (Titian) was away, working in Padua.   Sebastiano was now looked upon as the leading painter in Venice.   In early 1511, the Siennese banker, Agostino Chigi, who had become one of the richest men in Rome and a financial backer of the Popes,  visited Venice and persuaded Sebastiano to return with him to Rome.  Chigi believed that Sebastiano was the greatest living painter in Venice and he wanted him to carry out some work in his newly acquired villa.   Chigi was a great lover of the Arts and a wealthy patron of art and literature.  Chigi, at that time, owned a suburban villa on the shore of the River Tiber, known as Viridario, but later owners changed its name and it became known asVilla Farnesina.  Chigi wanted his residence to be one of the most opulent in the city befitting a man of his standing in society and wanted the best artists of the time to come and decorate the interior.  Besides summoning Sebastiano he invited other great painters to put their mark on the villa, such as Giovanni da Udine, Giulio Romano, Sodoma and Raphael Sanzio.  Sebastiano worked alongside Raphael on the frescoes for the villa which depicted scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

It was whilst working in Rome that Sebastiano became acquainted with, and became one of the rare and trusted friends of, Michelangelo Buonarroti.   According to Vasari, Michelangelo befriended Sebastiano and offered him pictorial designs for him to develop in paint.  This friendship however drew Sebastiano into the long running rivalry Michelangelo had with Raphael Sanzio but in a way it had a lot to do with today’s featured work.  It is believed that through the good auspices of Michelangelo, Sebastiano was, at the end of 1516, commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici to paint a large altarpiece, depicting the Raising of Lazarus.  Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici was appointed to the see of Narbonne, in south-west France, by his cousin Pope Leo X.  The painting, along with its proposed companion piece the Transfiguration, which the cardinal had commissioned, shortly before, from Raphael, were to be sent to the cathedral in the Cardinal’s own bishopric in Narbonne, which owned a relic relating to the story of Lazarus.  There seems nothing strange about the cardinal commissioning two paintings for the same cathedral but Vasari would have us believe that there was a little devilment with the cardinal’s request as, in a way, it was to pit the two artists against one another and of course the cardinal was well aware of the rivalry between Michelangelo and Raphael as we know Raphael’s “artistic enemy” was Michelangelo, who was therefore only too willing to lend Sebastiano a hand with the work by supplying him with sketches that could be incorporated into the Raising of Lazarus.

Michelangelo’s sketch of Lazarus

The featured painting today, the Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano, is a great example of the highly colourful style of Venetian painting of the time.   Sebastiano completed the painting in January 1519 and it was immediately hailed as an artistic triumph.  Raphael was concerned that his painting of the Transfiguration was not compared with Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus but the two were seen together in April of the following year, a couple of days after Raphael’s death.  Raphael’s painting never went to Narbonne, remaining in Rome whereas Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus eventually went to the French city.

The biblical tale tells us about the request of the sisters Martha and Mary for Jesus to visit the grave of their brother Lazarus and raise him from the dead.  In his Gospel, St John divided the story of the miracle into three parts. Firstly, Jesus bids the people to take the stone from the tomb.  Next he tells his friend, Lazarus to rise, and finally Jesus tells Lazarus to unbind his shroud and it is this third command to Lazarus that we see in the painting.  The painting we see before us is a depiction of a biblical story from the Gospel of Saint John (John: 11).  Verses 40 to 44 recount the event:

“…Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance.   “Take away the stone,” he said.  “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”    Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”   So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.    I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”  When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.  Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

In the background of the painting, we see a cloudy sky being penetrated by a shaft of light.  We can make out a distant town by a lake or river. The town is more a depiction of a high-walled fortified Roman town with its large and solidly built bridge, rather than a depiction of somewhere from Sebastiano’s birthplace, Venice.   It feels Roman more than Venetian. We see the figure of Christ standing in the foreground, slightly left of centre,   He is portrayed theatrically pointing towards the seated figure of Lazarus, who is still partly covered by his burial shroud.  It is almost as if Jesus is giving a speech.   Jesus needs all his powers of persuasion to bring back Lazarus. It is not so much a command Jesus is giving to Lazarus, more that he is appealing to the old man, his friend, to rise from the dead.

All around, and squeezed tightly into the composition, are men and women all of who pose in a most theatrical manner, due to their shock at seeing Lazarus coming back to life.   In the left mid-ground we see a group of Pharisees unimpressed by what they have seen and are still hell-bent on plotting the death of the so-called miracle maker.    The various figures in the painting are all clothed differently.  It is interesting to take time and study each figure.  There is an old man knelt on the lower left, hands clasped in a prayer-like manner as he looks up at Jesus.    Look how some of the men and women hold their hands up in horror and look away rather than cast a glimpse on the back-from-the-dead figure of Lazarus.  Dramatic poses have been given to Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus.   Mary is on her knees to the right of Jesus, her hand placed over her heart.   Martha, dressed in a blue robe with a red sash, stands to the right of Jesus, recoiling from what the Biblical passage termed “the bad odour”.

Martha recoiling at the sight and smell of Lazarus

Others talk together discussing what they see before them.   Take time and look at all the various expressions on the faces of the people.   All these figures are painted in bright colours.  The artificial and theatrical gestures we see before us seem almost as if time has come to a standstill.  It is like a freeze-frame shot from a film.   Lazarus is indeed a strong, mature man and Sebastiano used the red and black chalk drawings given to him by Michelangelo for a preliminary study of the figure of Lazarus and some of his attendants. Three of these drawings still exist and one can be seen at the British Museum in London.   The way the figures are portrayed by Sebastiano are depicted in a Michelangelo’s style. A prime example is the depiction of Lazarus.  Look at the way Sebastiano has shown him half turned which is often the way a sculptor would position his figure.  The arms and legs of Lazarus are so positioned to show off his musculature and sinews.  It is so like the work of Michelangelo.

Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici chose to keep Raphael’s Transfiguration for himself and it is now housed in the Vatican Gallery.  He sent Sebastiano’s painting to Narbonne.   The Raising of Lazarus in now housed in the National Gallery, London.    After Raphael’s death, Sebastiano became the leading painter in Rome and he was the first artist to return there after the 1527 Sack of Rome.  In 1531, the Pope rewarded his service by making him Keeper of the Papal Seal and it was from this position that Sebastaino became known as Sebastiano del Piombo, (piombo being the Italian word for lead which was used for sealing).

Tomorrow I will look at the companion piece or some would say the “competition” piece to Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus – Raphael Sanzio’s Transfiguration, a painting many art historians believe to be the greatest painting of all time.