The Transfiguration

Keywords: Transfiguration

Work Overview

The Transfiguration
Artist Raphael
Year 1516–20
Medium Tempera on wood
Dimensions 405 cm × 278 cm (159 in × 109 in)
Location Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City

The Transfiguration is the last painting by the Italian High Renaissance master Raphael. Commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici, the later Pope Clement VII (1523–1534) and conceived as an altarpiece for the Narbonne Cathedral in France, Raphael worked on it until his death in 1520. The painting exemplifies Raphael's development as an artist and the culmination of his career. Unusually for a depiction of the Transfiguration of Jesus in Christian art, the subject is combined with an additional episode from the Gospels in the lower part of the painting.

The Transfiguration stands as an allegory of the transformative nature of representation.[1] It is now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana in Vatican City.

By December 1516, the latest date of commission, Cardinal Giulio de Medici, cousin to Pope Leo X (1513–1521), was also the Pope's vice-chancellor and chief advisor. He had been endowed with the legation of Bologna, the bishoprics of Albi, Ascoli, Worcester, Eger and others. From February 1515, this included the archbishopric of Narbonne.[2] He commissioned two paintings for the cathedral of Narbonne, The Transfiguration of Christ from Raphael and The Raising of Lazarus from Sebastiano del Piombo. With Michelangelo providing drawings for the latter work, Medici was rekindling the rivalry initiated a decade earlier between Michelangelo and Raphael, in the Stanze and Sistine Chapel.[3]

From 11 to 12 December 1516, Michelangelo was in Rome to discuss with Pope Leo X and Cardinal Medici the facade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence. During this meeting, he was confronted with the commission of The Raising of Lazarus and it was here that he agreed to provide drawings for the endeavour, but not to execute the painting himself. The commission went to Michelangelo's friend Sebastiano del Piombo. As of this meeting the paintings would become emblematic of a paragone between two approaches to painting, and between painting and sculpture in Italian art.[2]

An early modello for the painting, done in Raphael's studio by Giulio Romano, depicted a 1:10 scale drawing for the Transfiguration. Here Christ is shown on Mount Tabor. Moses and Eljah float towards him; John and James are kneeling to the right; Peter is to the left. The top of the model depicts God the Father and a throng of angels.[2] A second modello, done by Gianfrancesco Penni, shows a design with two scenes, as the painting was to develop. This modello is held by the Louvre.[4]

The Raising of Lazarus was unofficially on view by October 1518. By this time Raphael had barely started on his altarpiece. By the time Sebastiano del Piombo's work was officially inspected in the Vatican by Leo X on Sunday, 11 December 1519, the third Sunday of Advent, The Transfiguration was still unfinished.[2]

Raphael would have been familiar with the final form of The Raising of Lazarus as early as the autumn of 1518, and there is considerable evidence that he worked feverishly to compete, adding a second theme and nineteen figures.[2] A surviving modello for the project, now in the Louvre (a workshop copy of a lost drawing by Raphael’s assistant Gianfrancesco Penni) shows the dramatic change in the intended work.

Examination of the final Transfiguration revealed more than sixteen incomplete areas and pentimenti (alterations).[2] An important theory holds that the writings of Blessed Amadeo Menes da Silva was key to the transformation. Amadeo was an influential friar, healer and visionary as well as the Pope’s confessor. He was also diplomat for the Vatican State. In 1502, after his death, many of Amadeo’s writings and sermons were compiled as the Apocalypsis Nova. This tract was well known to Pope Leo X. Guillaume Briçonnet, Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici’s predecessor as bishop of Narbonne, and his two sons also consulted the tract as spiritual guide. Cardinal Giulio knew the Apocalypsis Nova and could have influenced the painting's final composition. Amadeo’s tract describes the episodes of the Transfiguration and the possessed boy consecutively. The Transfiguration represents a prefiguration of the Last Judgement, and of the final defeat of the Devil, something that could only be achieved by Christ, hence the apostles are powerless to cure the possessed boy.[5] Another interpretation is that the epileptic boy has been cured thus linking the divinity of Christ with his healing power.

Raphael died on 6 April 1520. At the time of his death, the artist 'who lived more like a prince than a painter' lay in state for a couple of days at his house in the Borgo, with the famous Transfiguration, left unfinished at Raphael's death, at his head."[6] A week after his death, the two paintings were exhibited together in the Vatican.[2]

While there is some speculation that Raphael's pupil, Giulio Romano, and assistant, Gianfrancesco Penni, painted some of the background figures in the lower right half of the painting,[3] there is no evidence that anyone but Raphael finished the substance of the painting.[2] The cleaning of the painting from 1972 to 1976 revealed that assistants only finished some of the lower left figures, while the rest of the painting is by Raphael himself.[1]

Rather than send it to France, Cardinal Giulio retained the picture. In 1523,[4] he installed it on the high altar in the Blessed Amadeo’s church of San Pietro in Montorio, Rome,[5] in a frame which was the work of Giovanni Barile (no longer in existence). A mosaic copy of the painting was completed by Stefano Pozzi in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City in 1774.[4]

In 1797, during Napoleon Bonaparte's Italian campaign, it was taken to Paris by French troops and installed in the Louvre. Already on 17 June 1794, Napoleon's Committee of Public Instruction had suggested an expert committee accompany the armies to remove important works of art and science for return to Paris. The Louvre, which had been opened to the public in 1793, was a clear destination for the art. On 19 February 1799, Napoleon concluded the Treaty of Tolentino with Pope Pius VI, in which was formalized the confiscation of 100 artistic treasures from the Vatican.

Among the most sought after treasures Napoleons agents coveted were the works of Raphael. Jean-Baptiste Wicar, a member of Napoleon's selection committee, was a collector of Raphael's drawings. Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, another member, had been influenced by Raphael. For artists like Jacques-Louis David, and his pupils Girodet and Ingres, Raphael represented the embodiment of French artistic ideals. Consequently, Napoleon's committee seized every available Raphael. To Napoleon, Raphael was simply the greatest of Italian artists and The Transfiguration his greatest work. The painting, along with the Apollo Belvedere, the Laocoön, the Capitoline Brutus and many others, received a triumphal entry into Paris on 27 July 1798, the fourth anniversary of Maximilien de Robespierre's fall.[7]

In November 1798, The Transfiguration was on public display in the Grand Salon at the Louvre. As of 4 July 1801, it became the centrepiece of a large Raphael exhibition in the Grande Galerie. More than 20 Raphaels were on display. In 1810, a famous drawing by Benjamin Zix recorded the occasion of Napoleon and Marie Louise's wedding procession through the Grande Galerie, The Transfiguration on display in the background.[7]

The painting's presence at the Louvre gave English painters like Joseph Farington (on 1 and 6 September 1802)[8]:1820–32 and Joseph Mallord William Turner (in September 1802) the opportunity to study it. Turner would dedicate the first of his lectures as Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy to the picture.[9] Farington also reported on others having been to see the picture: Swiss painter Henry Fuseli, for whom it was second at the Louvre only to Titian’s The Death of St. Peter Martyr (1530), and English painter John Hoppner.[8]:1847 The Anglo-American painter Benjamin West "said that the opinion of ages stood confirmed that it still held the first place".[8]:1852 Farington himself expressed his sentiments as follows:

Were I to decide by the effect it had upon me I should not hesitate to say that the patient care and solid manner in which The Transfiguration is painted made an impression on my mind that caused other pictures esteemed of the first Class, to appear weak, and as wanting in strength & vigour.

— Joseph Farington, The Diary of Joseph Farington Vol. V[8]:1831
After the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1815, envoys to Pope Pius VII, Antonio Canova and Marino Marini managed to secure The Transfiguration (along with 66 other pictures) as part of the Treaty of Paris. By agreement with the Congress of Vienna, the works were to be exhibited to the public. The original gallery was in the Borgia Apartment in the Apostolic Palace. After several moves within the Vatican, the painting now resides in the Pinacoteca Vaticana.

The iconography of the picture has been interpreted as a reference to the delivery of the city of Narbonne from the repeated assaults of the Saracens. Pope Calixtus III proclaimed August 6 a feast day on the occasion of the victory of the Christians in 1456.[4]

J. M. W. Turner had seen The Transfiguration in the Louvre, in 1802. At the conclusion of the version of his first lecture, delivered on 7 January 1811, as Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy, Turner demonstrated how the upper part of the composition is made up of intersecting triangles, forming a pyramid with Christ at the top.[17]

Raphael plays on a tradition equating epilepsy with the aquatic moon (luna, from whence lunatic). This causal link is played on by the watery reflection of the moon in the lower left corner of the painting; the boy is literally moonstruck.[2] In Raphael's time, epilepsy was often equated with the moon (morbus lunaticus), possession by demons (morbus daemonicus), and also, paradoxically, the sacred (morbus sacer). In the 16th century, it was not uncommon for sufferers of epilepsy to be burned at the stake, such was the fear evoked by the condition.[18] The link between the phase of the moon and epilepsy would only be broken scientifically in 1854 by Jacques-Joseph Moreau de Tours.[19]

Raphael's Transfiguration can be considered a prefiguration of both Mannerism, as evidenced by the stylised, contorted poses of the figures at the bottom of the picture; and of Baroque painting, as evidenced by the dramatic tension imbued within those figures, and the strong use of chiaroscuro throughout.

As a reflection on the artist, Raphael likely viewed the Transfiguration as his triumph. Raphael uses the contrast of Jesus presiding over men to satiate his commissioners Roman Catholic Church. More interestingly, Raphael uses the cave to symbolize the Renaissance style, easily observed in the extended index finger as a reference to Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. Additionally, he subtly incorporates a landscape in the background, but uses darker coloring to show his disdain for the style. Yet the focal point of to the viewer is the Baroque styled child and his guarding father. In all, Raphael successfully appeased his commissioners, paid homage to his predecessors, and ushered the subsequent predominance of Baroque painting.

On the simplest level, the painting can be interpreted as a depicting a dichotomy: the redemptive power of Christ, as symbolised by the purity and symmetry of the top half of the painting; contrasted with the flaws of Man, as symbolised by the dark, chaotic scenes in the bottom half of the painting.

The philosopher Nietzsche interpreted the painting in his book The Birth of Tragedy as an image of the dichotomy between Apollonian and Dionysian principles.[20]

The sixteenth century painter and biographer, Giorgio Vasari, wrote in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects that the Transfiguration was Raphael's "most beautiful and most divine" work.

Cardinal Giulio de' Medici (the future pope Clement VII) commissioned two paintings for the cathedral of S. Giusto of Narbonne, the city of which he had become bishop in 1515. The Transfiguration was entrusted to Raphael, and the Raising of Lazarus (now in the National Gallery of London) to Sebastiano del Piombo. The Transfiguration was not sent to France because after Raphael's death (1520), the cardinal kept it for himself, subsequently donating it to the church of S. Pietro in Montorio where it was placed over the high altar. In 1797, following the Treaty of Tolentino, this work, like many others, was taken to Paris and returned in 1816, after the fall of Napoleon. It was then that it became part of the Pinacoteca of Pius VII (pontiff from 1800 to 1823).
The altarpiece illustrates two episodes narrated in succession in the Gospel according to Matthew: the Transfiguration above, with Christ in glory between the prophets Moses and Elijah, and below, in the foreground, the meeting of the Apostles with the obsessed youth who will be miraculously cured by Christ on his return from Mount Tabor.
This is Raphael's last painting and appears as the spiritual testament of the artist. The work is considered in his biography, written by the famous artist and biographer of the 16th century, Giorgio Vasari, "the most famous, the most beautiful and most divine".

Cardinal Giulio de' Medici commissioned the Transfiguration in 1517 to Raphael for the French Cathedral of Narbonne. Bad health prevented Raphael from finishing it. The painting, however, remained in Rome in San Pietro in Montorio after 1523. Taken to Paris 1797, it was brought back in its present location in 1815.

The composition of the Transfiguration is divided into two distinct parts: the Miracle of the Possessed Boy on a lower level; and the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor, in the background. The transfigured Christ floats in an aura of light and clouds above the hill, accompanied by Moses and Elijah. Below, on the ground, are his disciples. Some are dazzled by the light of glory, others are in prayer. The gestures of the crowd beholding at the miracle link the two parts together: the raised hands of the crowd converge toward the figure of Christ. In this very grand composition Raphael has summed up all the elements present in the best of contemporary painting, including references to classical antiquity, Leonardo da Vinci (without doubt based on his recall of impressions garnered during his stay in Florence) and - not without a certain narcissism - himself. The works set the stage (just as surely as Michelangelo's Doni Tondo) for Mannerism.

The numerous drawings (both by Raphael and pupils) for the characters in the painting, together with the number of variants of the first draft which were revealed by restoration work in 1977, show just exactly how carefully meditated a composition it is. The restoration also dispelled any doubts as to the authenticity of the attribution to Raphael; the retouching and corrections are proof that the painting (although unfinished) is actually entirely in his hand.

The Transfiguration is the last bequest of an artist whose brief life was rich in inspiration, where doubt or tension had no place. Raphael's life was spent in thoughts of great harmony and balance. This is one of the reasons why Raphael appears as the best interpreter of the art of his time and has been admired and studied in every century.

On 6 April 1520, precisely 37 years after he was born, Raphael died in Rome, the city that he had helped make the most important centre of art and culture that had ever existed.

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known in the art world as Raphael, was an Italian artist of the High Renaissance. Raphael worked as an apprentice for painter Pietro Perugino, where he learned about drawing, using art mediums to create anatomies of human figures, paint chemistry, and various techniques of applying paint onto wood or canvas in smooth layers.

The High Renaissance period of art (1490’s – 1527), was characterized as a period of exceptional artistic production in Italy. This period’s artists had ambitious scales, complexity of composition, closely observed human figures, decorative references to classical antiquity, or an idealized vision of the past. Raphael not only became a master of artistic technique, but in his thirty-seven years of life, produced an amazing amount of expert artistic works.

Raphael’s work of art, Transfiguration, was created beginning in 1516, and was thought to be finished by his student of art, Giulio Romano in 1520, after Raphael’s premature death. Cardinal Giulio de’Medici (who later became Pope Clement VII), commissioned Raphael to paint Transfiguration for the city of Narbonne, in France. The painting was kept personally by the Pope after Raphael’s untimely death, until he donated it to the church of San Pietro in Rome. The painting is now housed in the Vatican Museum.
This artistic composition is divided into two distinct parts. Transfiguration relates to successive stories of the Gospel of Matthew. The upper part of the painting depicts Christ elevated in front of billowing, illuminated clouds, and on either side of him are the prophets Elijah and Moses. In the lower portion of the painting, the Apostles are depicted, trying unsuccessfully, to rid the possessed boy of demons. The upper portion shows a transfigured Christ, appearing to be performing a miracle, curing the boy, and ridding him of the evil.

On the most obvious level, the painting can be interpreted as the split between the flaws of men, depicted in the lower half, and the redemptive power of Christ, in the upper half of the painting. There are two figures kneeling to the left of Christ are the martyrs, Saint Agapitus and Saint Felicissimus, who were deacons seized during the persecutions of Emperor Valerian.

Artistic Style and Medium
Transfiguration‘s dimensions are 159 inches by 109 inches. Raphael preferred painting on canvas, but this painting was done with oil paints on wood as chosen mediums. Raphael actually showed advanced indications of Mannerism, and Baroque period techniques in this painting.
The stylized, contorted poses of the lower half figures indicate Mannerism. The dramatic tension within these figures, and the liberal use of light to dark, or chiaroscuro contrasts, represent the Baroque period of exaggerated motion to produce drama, tension, exuberance, or enlightenment. Transfiguration was ahead of its time, just as Raphael’s death came too soon.

Jesus had climbed a mountain called Tabor with his followers Peter, James and John. He there underwent a transfiguration: he became radiant. He also briefly spoke with Moses (top left) and the prophet Elijah (Elia). To impress Peter and the others even more, God spoke to them from a cloud: "This is my son, listen to him."

The lower half of the panel shows Jesus casting out an evil spirit from a boy, just after returning to his normal state. His disciples had failed at the same. Present-day medics say the boy (bottom right) had an epileptic seizure.

This panel is assumed to be Raphael's last painting. He died at 37 before completing it; it was finished by his student Giulio Romano.

Commissioned in 1517 by Cardinal Giulio de' Medici (1478-1534) (of the Florentine Medici Family) - shortly to become Pope Clement VII (1523-34) - as an altarpiece for the French Cathedral of Narbonne (in competition with The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo) of which he was Archbishop, this work of religious art was left unfinished by Raphael at his death in 1520, and was completed by his assistants Giulio Romano (1499-1546) and Giovanni Francesco Penni (1496-1536). In the event, the Cardinal kept the painting in Rome and on his accession to the Papacy in 1523, gifted it to the church of San Pietro in Montorio, Rome. In 1774, the new Pope Pius VI (1775-99) had a copy of it made out of mosaic and installed in St. Peter's Basilica. The painting itself was looted by Napoleon in 1797 and taken to Paris, from where it was repatriated in 1815. Raphael's last major work and an undoubted masterpiece of the Italian High Renaissance, it now hangs in the Pinacoteca Apostolica, one of the Vatican Museums. As a result of a major restoration in 1977 by Vatican conservation experts, Raphael's Renaissance colour palette is now fully visible and the painting has regained its pristine splendour. The restoration also dispelled any lingering doubts about the painting's creator. Although unfinished, it was wholly Raphael's work.

This painting, a significant contribution to the Renaissance in Rome, illustrates the dual human and divine nature of Christ. The upper part portrays the Transfiguration of Christ, flanked by Moses and Elijah, on Mount Tabor, 10 miles south-east of Nazareth - as recorded in St Mark's Gospel of the Old Testament (9: 2-13). The lower part illustrates the Miracle of the Possessed (Epileptic) Boy, which follows immediately after the Transfiguration (see, for instance, Mark 9: 19). In the Bible, Jesus heals the boy to demonstrate the power of faith and prayer. Using contrasts of light and movement between the two scenes, Raphael combines both these Biblical episodes into one single, spectacular and dramatic painting. Futhermore, numerous preparatory studies by Raphael and his assistants, as well as X-ray analysis of changes made to the painting, demonstrate just what a polished piece of disegno it is.

In the upper Transfiguration, the radiant Christ floats in the clouds above the hill, flanked by Moses and Elijah. Below them, lying dazzled and sprawled on the ground, are his disciples. The figure of the floating Jesus is both indicated and acclaimed by gestures of the crowd in the lower section, which thus unite the two halves of the work. Except that, in contrast to the brilliance of the Transfiguration, the lower picture is marked by darkness, as well as the consternation of the apostles who are unable to cure the sick boy. Meanwhile, the expressive bodily gestures and glazed, open-eyed stare of the boy, reveal the awful effects of his condition. Raphael's efforts to capture physical and psychic illnesses through masterful painterly technique are clearly visible both in this figure and in his depiction of the emotional involvement of the boy's parents and other bystanders.

Influence of Raphael's Transfiguration
This vivid portrayal of human emotion - inspired in part by the Adoration of the Magi (1481, Uffizi Gallery, Florence) by Leonardo da Vinci, and by Titian's Assumption of the Virgin (1518) - influenced many other High Renaissance artists, and - along with the Last Judgment fresco on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo - may be said to have paved the way for the even more expressionistic style of Mannerism. Indeed, some art experts consider that the dramatic tension contained within Raphael's figures, allied to his strong use of chiaroscuro, prefigures the coming style of Baroque painting.

In his famous book Lives of the Artists (1550), the Florentine Mannerist artist and biographer, Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), wrote that The Transfiguration was Raphael's "most beautiful and divine" work. Insofar as the painting (1) promotes the Church - by exalting the redemptive power of Christ, while reminding us of the flaws of man - (2) pays due regard to the creative efforts of the artist's predecessors, and (3) foretells the future development of 16th-century art, one might easily agree with him. On the other hand, one might say that the very emotionalism which makes this work so progressive (one might say its Mannerist Painting tendency) conflicts to some extent with Raphael's signature style of calm gracefulness and harmony of balance, embodied, for example in The School of Athens (1509-13, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican) - as well as other works in the Raphael Rooms - and The Sistine Madonna (1513-14, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden). Irrespective of which style is most quintessentially Raphael, and despite his slight fall in fashion during this present period of expressionism, he remains without doubt one of the best artists of all time.

The transfigured Christ is miraculously lifted above Mount Tabor between Moses (on the right) and Elijah (on the left). James, Peter and John (from left to right) react to the blinding light and powerful drama occurring above them. Raphael is often called the great assimilator of the High Renaissance style, and the work exhibits the expected characteristics of balance, proportion and symmetry. The transfiguration appears in the upper half of the large altar painting (13'4" × 9'2") while the story of the possessed boy (which follows the story of the transfiguration in Matthew 17) inhabits the earthly realm. This is the last piece of art that Raphael worked on before his death on Good Friday, April 6, 1520, at age 37. It was brought from his studio in Rome and placed above his bier during the funeral in the Pantheon. The painting was originally commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici for the Cathedral of Narbonne, France. He established a competition between Raphael and Sebastiano del Piombo, a Venetian artist, and Raphael may have included the rendering of the possessed boy to outdo Sebastiano.

According to present estimations, there are between 300,000 and 600,000 people in the U.K. who have epilepsy. Of these, over half are under 20 years of age. In the Renaissance, this disease was just as common as it is today, although in those days people made no clear distinction between obsessions, the plague and epilepsy. The Renaissance viewed the human being who fitted harmoniously into the cosmos, as the measure of all things. Therefore people reacted with great irritation to anything that seemed unusual or strange and looked to the heavens to find an explanation for it. In the Christian Middle Ages, as in ancient Greek and Roman times, epilepsy was regarded as the 'unnatural, mysterious illness which is not of this world.'

The most famous painting of a person with epilepsy is the one by Raphael (Raphaelo Santi, 1483-1520) :

Raphael's last picture, the 'Transfiguration of Christ', is divided into two parts: the upper part depicts the transfiguration of Christ, the lower part portrays the healing (or rather the scene immediately preceding it) of the boy with an evil spirit (epilepsy). This story comes immediately after the description of the transfiguration in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). The lower part of this painting, which was never completely finished, is based on the following passage in the Bible:
'...Teacher, I brought my son to you, because he has an evil spirit in him and cannot talk. Whenever the spirit attacks him, it throws him to the ground, and he foams at the mouth, grits his teeth and becomes stiff all over.' (Mark 9, 17-18)

The scene shows the father (wearing a green robe to symbolize hope) bringing his son to the disciples. The painting shows the boy having a seizure: his father has to support him as he cannot stand upright. The boy's limbs are stiff (tonic) and twisted, his mouth is slightly open, his lips are blue, his eyes are fixed in a squint. It is clear to see that during such a convulsion the 'demon' would throw the victim 'into the fire or into the water' (Mt 17, 14) if he were not under the care of his family.

Jesus heals the boy by driving out the evil spirit. This passage in the Bible led people in the Christian Middle Ages to believe that epilepsy was caused by demons, and this opinion was one of the main reasons why the falling sickness was called 'morbus daemonicus' (the demonic disease) at that time.

Art historians have repeatedly pointed to the symbolism of the themes portrayed in this masterpiece: they believe that Rafael intentionally included the simultaneous depiction of the transfiguration of Christ and the healing of the epileptic boy in one painting. In so doing he consciously created a link between the transfigured Christ and the epileptic boy - a symbolic incongruity between the later crucified and then risen Christ and the epileptic boy who falls to the ground in a seizure, lies there as if dead and then 'rises' up again. It is notable that in the painting, the only link between the two parts of the picture is made by the epileptic boy, who is the only person in the lower half of the picture whose face is turned to the transfigured Christ in the upper part of the painting.

On the top you can see Jesus 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 lighting up. 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. The two people of 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. On the top right, you can see a valley with some houses.

Bottom Half: On the left side of the bottom half of the painting, you can see the other nine disciples of Jesus who did not climb the mountain. 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 consulted a book, but could not find the solution to cure the young man. The young disciple in the yellow robe is Philip, to his right in the red robe is Andrew, the man behind him pointing to the sick boy is Judas Thaddeus, and the older man to his left is Simon. The man of 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 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 are two women who 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 completely (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), which can now be admired 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, quite some artists and art experts considered this to be the best painting ever. The story on top is the Transfiguration and on the bottom is The Healing of the Lunatic Boy. The transfiguration is 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 is also described in Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9, and 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 we 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.
Who is Raphael? Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520) was a very productive painter and so, 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 the best works by Raphael, only surpassed according to many people by his fresco of the School of Athens, which is also in the Vatican Museums. The Transfiguration was ahead of its time and contains some elements of both the Mannerism and Baroque style of painting and it has had a big influence on both styles and painters in the future. 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 quite 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 after he saw the completed painting of Del Piombo. He then decided to add additional figures to the painting to outshine the painting of Del Piombo (who was 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.