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The Transfiguration by Raphael

Nina ter Beest Faculty of Economics and Business, Ilse van Tuinen Faculty of Behavioural and Social Science, Jojan Meppelink Faculty of Science and Engeneering

Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520), better known as Raphael, painted The Transfiguration in the period of 1518-1520 and it would be his last painting. Cardinal Giulio de'Medici (1478-1534), the later Pope Clement VII, was the commissioner of the painting[1]. The Cardinal intended to place the painting in the French Cathedral of Narbonne, the city of which he became bishop in 1515. He requested a portrayal of the Biblical story of the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13). However, Raphael took the liberty to portray another Biblical story in addition to the transfiguration; the curing of the possessed boy (Matthew 17:14-21). In this wiki we will show how the combination of these two stories are the solution to the question: what is the relationship between man and God? First, we will describe why this question arose. Then we will argue why the painting is a solution to the religious problems by giving a detailed description of what can be seen on the painting and how this can be interpreted.

The Transfiguration (1518-1520) by Raphael (1483-1520) in Pinacoteca Vatican Museum, Rome, Italy[1]
1. Historical Context
2. Biblical Stories
2.1 The Transfiguration
2.2 The Healing of the Possessed Boy
3. Iconography
3.1 Top of the Painting
3.2 The Possessed Boy
3.3 The Apostles
3.4 Maria Magdalena
4. Conclusion
5. Sources

1. Historical Context

Religion and the interpretation of religion were changing in the time that the painting was made. An important question in that time concerned the relationship between God and the people. The riches of the church created a distance between the papacy and the ordinary people[1]. This also created a fracture between those ordinary people and God. According to the papacy, the relationship between people and God was created by the Catholic church. The priests read the Bible and gave an interpretation which was informed by the Vatican. This interpretation was general and there was no room for the individual or personal approach to religion.

Two important factors that influenced the interpretation of religion were humanism and the Reformation. Humanism was a new idea that started spreading in the period that we now refer to as the Renaissance. Humanism focuses on the ability of people and the fulfillment of the individual[2]. Individuals had to do research for evidence and information themselves. Together with the invention of book printing, this led to individuals reading and interpreting the Bible themselves. Thus, the valuable role of the Vatican as interpreters of the Bible decreased. One important example of the influence of humanists on the position of the papacy is the case of Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457). Valla was a humanist and wanted to go back to the sources[3]. He looked at the document of the Donation of Constantine, the document in which Emperor Constantine (272 AD-337 AD) transferred temporal power to the papacy. Valla discovered that this document was a forgery. This discovery was used as argument to show that the Pope did not have the right to appoint temporal rulers and this argument undermined the position of the papacy.

The other factor factor that influenced religion was the increasing support of the (Protestant) Reformation. The Reformation accelerated in 1517 when Martin Luther (1483-1546) spread his Ninety-Five Theses. In these theses he argued why the selling of indulgences was controversial and he questioned the authority of the papacy[1]. The discussion that was raised by Luther was already present in Catholic societies before 1517. Luther’s discussion and the Reformation itself could also be seen as people trying to determine what the relationship between God and man should be according to the Bible. This is the problem that Raphael is trying to solve in his painting of The Transfiguration.

2. Biblical Stories

The stories in the painting are based on two consecutive biblical stories from Matthew. The top part of the painting represents the transfiguration of Christ (Matthew 17:1-13), in which Jesus goes up to the mountain Thabor with three of his apostles. The painting shows Jesus at the moment in which he gets the divine status and is recognized as the Son of God. The bottom part of the painting presents the story of a possessed boy (Matthew 17:14-21). In this story the apostles (bottom left of the painting) try to heal a boy. However, they are not able to heal the boy, but Jesus is able to do so. After Jesus heals the boy, he criticizes the faith of the apostles. Although the two stories share the same setting, the top and middle of a mountain, they are clearly differentiated.

2.1 The Transfiguration

17 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. 4 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.' 5 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!' 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. 'Get up,' he said. 'Don’t be afraid.' 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, 'Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.' 10 The disciples asked him, 'Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?' 11 Jesus replied, 'To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things.12 But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.' 13 Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist. (English Standard Version Translation)

Detailed view of the top of the painting [9]

The transfiguration plays an important role in the Christian religion for multiple reasons. First, it is one of the miracles of Christ and it is unique, because this miracle happens to Christ himself[5]. Second, The transfiguration is seen as the moment where human nature meets God. Jesus becomes a bridge between the people on earth and the divine life in heaven[6]. In addition, the story emphasises the position of Jesus as the son of God. Matthew's narrative of the story shows us that God speaks the words:'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!' (Matthew 17, 5). This quote shows that Jesus is not only the son of God, but also the interpreter and messenger of God's words[7]. Thus, The Transfiguration of Raphael shows the story in which Jesus obtains the highest power and a divine status[8]. Further, it shows that the power of God and Jesus is stronger than anything.

2.2 The Healing of the Possessed Boy

14 When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him.15 '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. 16 I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.' 17 '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.' 18 Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, 'Why couldn’t we drive it out?' 20 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.' (English Standard Version Translation)

Detailed view of the bottom of the painting [10]

The story of the transfiguration is combined with the story about the possessed boy. The story of the boy shows that the apostles are not able to heal the boy, because of a lack of faith:'He replied,'Because you have so little faith.'' (Matthew 17, 20). In this part of Matthew, Jesus tells the apostles that faith is necessary to accomplish something. The combination of both stories show the viewer a powerful message. The viewer becomes aware that one should listen to Jesus as well as have faith in him. Raphael combined these two Bible stories for a reason. The Transfiguration focuses on a miracle. It is a story in which Jesus and God play the most important role. The story about the possessed boy gives attention to ordinary people. By combining the two stories, Raphael shows that the possessed boy, a seemingly ordinary person, can experience the miracles of God. This emphasizes the fact that an individual can have a personal relationship with God, even if you do not have a high position in society.

3. Iconography

One of the first things you notice about the painting is the use of light; the painting is rather dark except for the area around Jesus, the possessed boy and the woman in the middle. This use of light already shows who the most important figures in the painting are. The painting is organized in a triangle, the events all point to the top: to Jesus. This shows that the scene on the bottom, the story of the possessed boy, is used to support the scene on the top: the transfiguration of Jesus. The whole painting is a line of hierarchy. It starts with the people in the background at the right bottom, who are walking up the mountain. The hierarchy then follows the shape of a spiral up the mountain. The spiral seems to end with Jesus, but he creates another layer in the hierarchy by looking up to the sky: God[11].

Comparing the Transfiguration by Raphael with other paintings of the same episode show similarity in the people who are present, but the similarities end at that point. The difference between the paintings of the transfiguration before Raphael is considerable. Raphael creates movement and emotion due to his use of light in the painting[12]. The use of light was not commonly used by painters before Raphael and his colleagues. Striking is the fact that after Raphael's interpretation of the Transfiguration other painters used this as inspirations for their own painting. A good example is the painting Lodovico Carracci (circa 1588-1590).

The Transfiguration (1490) by Giovanni Belinni (c. 1430 – 1516) in Museo di Capodimonte, Napels, Italy.[13] The Transfiguration (1594) by Lodovico Carracci (circa 1588-1590) in Scottish National Gallery - National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, United Kingdom.[14]

3.1 The Top of the Painting

Christ climbed the mountain with the apostles Peter, James and John. They are the three men lying down on the mountain. From left to right: James, Peter, John. Next to Jesus are the old-testament prophets Elijah and Moses. Moses is the one on the left, he can be recognized by his tablets of stone which symbolize his role as lawgiver. Elijah is the prophet on the right and he foretold the coming of Christ. The two men on the left are Justus and Pastor, the pastors and martyrs of the Narbonne cathedral[15]. We believe that those men were added to make a connection to Narbonne. People would feel more engaged in the story, if two of their Saints were present in it.

Christ is floating above the mountain. There is a lot of light around him. This shows that he is most important part of the painting, because the light causes your attention to be directed to him. Christ is larger than Moses and Elias who are next to him. And the prophets are larger than the apostles lying beneath them. This shows the hierarchy among the characters.

On the contrary, all the characters in the painting look a lot alike. Jesus is depicted as a normal human being, comparable with the other humans in the painting. This reduces the distance between the ordinary people and Jesus. By looking at the painting you see that Jesus is not something divine and far away. He is an individual, which makes a personal relationship with him more thinkable.

Detailed view of the top of the painting[16]

3.2 The Healing of the Possessed Boy

Detailed view of the possesed boy[17]

The two groups at the bottom at the painting are divided by a diagonal line, resembling a shadow[12]. This shows that there is clear confrontation between the two groups. The family is looking to the apostles, seeking for help to cure their boy. They have wide, open eyes filled with despair. The eyes of the boy’s father are focussed directly on the closed eyes of one of the apostles. This also shows the confrontation between the two groups. The apostles are trying to heal the possessed boy, but they are failing to do so. This boy seems to be the only person in the painting who sees the transfiguration. He is looking directly at Jesus and he clearly experiences something unusual. We believe that Raphael chose to use this boy, because he does not have a high position in the society. The boy is viewed as possessed and strange by the characters on the bottom of the painting. Raphael shows that the odd and seemingly unimportant people can have a special relationship with Jesus and God.

3.3 The Apostles

Detailed view of the Apostles[18]

The group facing the boy are a portrayal of nine of the twelve apostles. You can see the conflict between the Apostles on what should be done to cure the boy. For example, the man in the front with a book in his hand. He is trying to find a solution in his book. However, the man in red, who seems to point to the mountain and Jesus, is trying to communicate that Jesus, and therfore belief, is needed to cure the boy. This is seen by his pointing finger, but also by his posture. His eyes are closed, his right hand is on his heart and his finger points towards Jesus. This shows that he feels rather than sees the presence of Jesus[12]. The blonde man, with the yellow clothes, in front of the apostle dressed in red, leans forward to explain to the family of the boy that the help of Jesus is needed to cure the boy. Behind the blond man with yellow clothes is an older man in red dressing who seems to oppose the view of the blond man, by holding up his hands while looking at the women next to the child. The two pairs of men who are in the back of the group of Apostles are discussing among themselves how the boy should be cured.

The apostles clearly have more attention for the boy than for the miracle of the transfiguration. They are distracted by an odd boy and want to free him from the demons by which the he is possessed. The apostles miss the fact that the boy is experiencing something special, instead of something bad. The apostles are trying to heal the boy themselves. As already described in the biblical story; this shows a lack of faith. Raphael shows that when you become distracted, you cannot experience the pure religion. Only the pure people, like the boy, can experience this. This means that the relationship with God is based on faith and not on your position. An unimportant boy can feel it, but the apostles cannot.

However, some of the apostles are engaged in internal seeing, while the others are distracted by the external visual world. For example, the man in the front with a book in his hands. He is trying to find a solution in his book instead of relying on his faith. However, the man in red who points to the painting on top has internal seeing. His eyes are closed, his right hand is on his heart and his finger points towards Jesus. This shows that he feels rather than sees the presence of Jesus. The apostles make the error to inquire for a earthly solution to heal the boy, while they should focus on their faith. The boy is also pointing towards Christ with one hand, his other hand is directed to the ground. He is pulled by two opposite forces, towards heaven on his right and towards earth on his left. This parallel suggests that The Transfiguration shows a battle between two worldviews. Between the empirically minded and those of higher, spiritual wisdom.

3.4 Maria Magdalena

Detailed view of the woman in the painting [19]

Between the two groups is a woman. She offers a compositional and structural bridge between the two groups by pointing at the boy and directing the attention of the apostles to him. The woman plays a main role in the painting. She is, except for Jesus, the center of attention. She tries to redirect the focus of the apostles to the miracle that the boy is seeing. She wants to show the apostles what they are missing because of their attempts to cure the boy themselves.

Our interpretation is, that the woman is Maria Magdalena. Maria Magdalena is present in important moments in the life of Jesus, such as the resurrection of Christ (Mark 16:9). She is the only one in the painting who knows what is happening. In addition, she was also healed from demons by Jesus (Luke 8:2) so she realizes what is happening to the boy.

We believe that Raphael chose Maria Magdalena, because she was a reformed prostitute and thus shows that if you are repentant of your deeds you will find true religion[20]. She knows that the boy is experiencing a connection with Jesus. She tries to convince the apostles to focus on what is happening. She tries to show the true way to a relationship with Jesus. This relationship is a personal feeling and is not always visible to others.

Our interpretation about Maria Magdalena is supported by other paintings. Maria Magdalena is often portrayed with a bared shoulder and with a thoughtful atmosphere around her. These characteristics in portraying Maria Magdalena are indications to show her history as a prostitute. Our Maria Magdalena is portrayed with pink and blue clothes, just as in the paintings beneath. The physical similarities between our Maria Magdalena and the other Maria Magdalena’s suggests that our interpretation is correct.

Magdalena Penitente by Bartholome Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) in Museo Del Prado, Madrid, Spain.[21] Magdalena Penitente by Andrea Vaccaro (1604-1670) in Casa de Alba, Sevilla, Spain. [22]

4. Conclusion

The Transfiguration by Raphael answers the question about the relationship between God and His people. It shows that it is a direct personal relation one has with God and Christ without an intermediary, such as the Pope. The painting as a whole shows that only the pure (possessed child) and the penitent (Maria Magdalena) are able to see the miracles of Jesus and have a relationship with him. It shows that a relationship with God is personal. It should not have to be visible or understable for others, it is your own experience. Raphael’s portrayal of the relation corresponds with the humanistic approach to religion. People should find their own relationship with God. In addition, Raphael showed with The Transfiguration that only pure and repenting humans could have such a relationship with God.

5. Sources

    Paoletti, J. T., & Radka, G. M. (2005). Art in Renaissance Italy (3 ed.). London: Laurence King Publishing.
  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transfiguration_(Raphael)#/media/File:Transfigurazione_(Raffaello)_September_2015-1a.jpg" The Transfiguration (1518-1520) by Raphael (1483-1520) in Pinacoteca Vatican Museum, Rome, Italy [Accessed 29-11-2017]
  2. Mann, N. (1996). The Origins of Humanism. Cambridge University Press. pp. 1–2.
  3. Stinger, C. L. (1985). The Renaissance in Rome. Bloomington, USA: Indiana University Press. Top to Bottorn, It’s a Raphael in the Vatican.(1977). New York Times. [online] [Accessed 14-08-2017]
  4. Barth, Karl (2004). Thomas Forsyth Torrance, ed. Church Dogmatics. The Doctrine of Creation. Volume 3, Part 2: The Creature. Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 978-0-567-05089-2.
  5. Lee, Dorothy (2004). Transfiguration. Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 978-0-8264-7595-4.
  6. Andreopoulos, Andreas (2005). Metamorphosis: The Transfiguration in Byzantine Theology and Iconography. St Vladimir's Seminary Press. ISBN 978-0-88141-295-6.
  7. Evans, Craig A. (2005). The Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: John's Gospel, Hebrews-Revelation. David C Cook. ISBN 978-0-7814-4228-2.
  8. https://i2.wp.com/www.breadforbeggars.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Smaller-Transfiguration.jpg?fit=2283%2C1468 Detailed view of the top of the painting
  9. http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2012/08/raphaels-transfiguration-of-christ.html#.Wh6UJUrT5PZ Detailed view of the bottom of the painting
  10. Visual-arts-cork.com. (2017). Transfiguration, Raphael: Analysis, Interpretation. [online] Available at: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/famous-paintings/transfiguration-raphael.htm [Accessed 4 Oct. 2017].
  11. Kleinbub, C. (2011). Vision and the visionary in Raphael (1st ed.). University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, pp.100-120.
  12. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transfiguration_of_Christ_(Bellini)#/media/File:The-Transfiguration-1480-xx-Giovanni-Bellini.JPG The Transfiguration (1490) by Giovanni Belinni (c. 1430 – 1516) in Museo di Capodimonte, Napels, Italy.
  13. https://www.artfund.org/supporting-museums/art-weve-helped-buy/artwork/10088/the-transfiguration The Transfiguration (1594) by Lodovico Carracci (circa 1588-1590) in Scottish National Gallery - National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, United Kingdom.
  14. Gnann, A. and Plomp, M. (2012). Rafael en zijn school. Zwolle: WBOOKS.
  15. https://i2.wp.com/www.breadforbeggars.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Smaller-Transfiguration.jpg?fit=2283%2C1468 Detailed view of the top of the painting
  16. https://i.pinimg.com/736x/8f/91/a9/8f91a901e3f2534cf7b5359da2f82a0c--la-renaissance-raffaello.jpg Detailed view of the possessed boy
  17. http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-qjM3y3KgwNY/UCAUVQywOqI/AAAAAAAABMw/k-P-dyHmTUk/s1600/5+-+Transfiguration+(lower+half).jpg Detailed view of the Apostles
  18. https://mydailyartdisplay.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/contrapposto.jpg?w=840 Detailed view of the woman in the painting
  19. Hooper, R. L. (2005). The crucifixion of Mary Magdalene. Sedona: Sanctuary Publications.
  20. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5c/Magdalena_penitente_%28Murillo%29.jpg Magdalena Penitente by Bartholome Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) in Museo Del Prado, Madrid, Spain.
  21. http://enclasedepatrimonio.blogspot.nl/2009/11/magdalena-penitente-de-andrea-vaccaro.html Magdalena Penitente by Andrea Vaccaro (1604-1670) in Casa de Alba, Sevilla, Spain.

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