Raphael's Transfiguration ...
and the "other" Messiah

The Transfiguration by Raphael
14 "   x  11 "
Author's sketchbook
color pencil
2009

The Transfiguration

by Raphael Sanzio
159"   x  109 "
tempera and oil on wood
1520

Pinacoteca Vaticana

Proverbially, travel writers in Italy have sung the praises of its sunny skies.

 

Yet it is also the case that in this part of the world, if, as I do, you come from Cuba or the Caribbean, people immediately remark  in admiration,  that you come from a solar culture. By comparison with Italy, they insist, you are blessed to be from a place on Earth with more sun and an almost magical luminosity.

 

I thought of this the other day when one of my mother's more, yes,  luminous expressions suddenly came to me while I looked at painter Raphael Sanzio's very last work, The Transfiguration, in the Vatican Museums.


"Estos ojos que algún día se comerán los gusanos . . . .", I thought! These eyes, my mother would say, that one day the worms will feast on. . . . She'd be talking about her mortality, of course, but the phrase lent her foreknowledge of death a sense of defiance!

 

Anyhow, as my own eyes, now in Italy, took in the glory and the beauty of this painting by Raphael, I thought about the grave. But  here was the clincher: our vision, even in its mortality, it occurred to me,perhaps because of it, could give us what one English poet, I think, called intimations of eternity.


Talking about intimations of death, Giorgio Vasari, 16th century historian of Italian artists, tells us that this was the very last painting that the artist from Urbino, Italy, worked on before he passed away at age 37. Vasari further relates in his Lives of the Artists that the canvas was placed on an easel next to Raphael's casket in the Pantheon, when his friends and benefactors came to bid him farewell in what would be his resting place. Quite an honor, by the way, to be buried there, without being a king or a saint or what have you.  

 

Anyway, for many years, I had known these historical minutiae but had not stopped to think about them or, what is worse, to analyze with much care the actual painting whenever I saw it. And then the other day I overheard a Vatican guide tell his group of sleepy tourists that Raphael had left for last the face of Jesus.  “When the painter died unexpectedly," the guide told his travellers, trying to awaken their sense of wonder, "the face of Jesus that he has painted was still wet!"

 

I, for one, thought of my mother's worms or eyes or both. The paradox of it all. I imagined Raphael lying in state in 1520, and his painting there beside him  ... still wet! 

 

The young Vatican guide continued, with something in his demeanor, plump cheeks, and  lamb-choppy sideburns being rather Dickens-like: "Look at the scene of mayhem in the panel," he said.  "The more glorious top half is what happens before --  the transfiguration of Jesus -- and below is  the chaotic earthly side, where the disciples have been trying to cure the young boy 'possessed by demons,' which
you see third from the right at the bottom of the work. That's because it's a sort of before and after painting. It's
split in two."

The transfiguration, according to the gospel of Matthew, not only immediately  preceded the scene involving the sick boy, but it took place, of course, some time before Jesus' death and resurrection, when three of his closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, saw their friend and teacher raised to heaven and infused by a radiant light, when they were on Mount Tabor talking. In the painted panel, the three apostles are seen prostrate on the ground as they hear a voice from heaven say: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am pleased!” (Matthew 17). Next to Jesus on either side, according to the passage, were Moses and Elijah. “Look at the little boy there below," the guide insisted. "Even after seeing the transfiguration, the apostles could not perform a miracle and cure the child. This is where in that same gospel passage, Christ utters the famous words you have probably all heard," he told the tourist group after a pause, "  'If your faith were the size of a mustard seed, you could do this and more. In fact, you could move mountains!' ”
 

Speaking of mountains there is something about the transfigured Jesus, as Raphael painted him, that rises like a mountain sun above Mount Tabor. His figure, too, is like a fountain, much like the ones we see in Rome gushing and dancing in the Italian sun. His sheer, bluish white vestments as well as the physique of his almost feminine thighs -- are feasts for the eye. Of course, the overtones of the Resurrection are also evident in the triangular composition. This is a painting of Christian fervor and belief. But it is also one of darkness and complicated sorrow.  In the bottom half of the composition, except for the kneeling woman in the center and to some degree the little boy she is pointing to, everything is confusion: . In fact, while almost all the adults are too busy to do anything but what seems to be accuse the boy of wrongdoing and point their fingers every which way -- except up! --  in derision, the little boy is the only one whose eyes are turned
to the upper register of the canvas,  precisely to where Jesus is (or was) being transfigured! What does this suggest about the child?
One idea is that hough he may be possessed -- or because he was -- he could see and perhaps hear the greater, more heavenly event above! In fact, a close rereading of the Bible passage shows that the three apostles' only verbal reaction to the transfiguration was to offer Jesus to set up three tents up there so he could be comfortable under the tented shelter with Elijah and Moses! Of course, Jesus turns down the offer, and, one can feel, with disgust.

 

In light of this important detail in the narrative, one may wonder if this is why Raphael, in fact, paints the three apostles on the ground not so much dazzled by the light, but as though writhing on the ground, in their earthliness, like worms!


This is where the painting is all about vision and turning. Conversion, one could say. Or transfiguration that defies our mortal senses while it glorifies them.


Today's visitors to the so-called “Raphael Room” of the Vatican Museum's Pinacoteca, have a difficult time not precisely looking at the panel but trying to dodge the guards' warnings about not taking flash pictures there, in deference to the 7 or 8 tapestries, designed by Raphael as well, and also hanging in this huge room. “No flash! No flash!” cry the otherwise aloof guards whenever the flaring of the camera lights becomes too evident and the controlled photo-sensitive environment of the exhibit space is blanched by the cameras. Each time I have gone there in the past month, I hear this banal crossfire. However, I'd like to close this story with a more positive
spin, perhaps in tribute to my solar mother and her way with words.


For example, viewing the divided but totally triangular composition of the painting, I am tempted to “hear” the voice from the sky saying, “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am pleased” as referring as much to Jesus as to the young boy suffering from seizures. In other words, the lowliest of the low in the composition, transfigured in his own way so that his eyes seem to be popping out of their sockets to look on the miracle that no one else can see, is more of a son of God  -- or Messiah -- than his fellow townspeople. He has what we could call the Christic vision.

 

In addition, such a reading of the painting also makes Raphael one of the first artists in the history of Western visual art, sort of à la Charles Baudelaire in his collection of poems, Les Fleurs du mal, who dares to bless or literally elevate the ugly as a subject worthy of  contemplation. Moreover, that our painter would do this in the very last work he completed before he died casts even more of a remarkable light on the painter-as-a-thinker, in touch with his times. Only three years prior to 1520, religious leader Martin Luther had posted his 95 theses on the doors of the Cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany, heralding the Protestant Reformation. Could we see, then,  "TheTransfiguration" as a possible "statement," as we would say nowadays, about the divided world of Christendom, as the artist felt it and understood it in those days? Following this possible reading, too, which side of the canvas represents Roman Catholicism and which side the Protestantism? Could Raphael, after finishing his frescoes of the School of Athens and Fire in the Borgo in the Vatican Stanzae some years before for Pope Julius II and Leo X, have had his own eyes -- like those of the little boy here -- on a side of heaven that the rest of his Roman countrymen and faithful, and certainly those popes too, could not see?


More interesting yet --  is the painter suggesting, by his simultaneous coupling of the two moments in time, a parallel between the apostles'
previous, almost ridiculous proffering to set up tents and the same men's inability to deal with the possessed boy? Does this possible link, indeed, throw light on Christ's use of the tiny mustard seed to describe the nature of belief? Although the small mustard seed can yield a tree huge in size and strength, it must begin small and fragile, almost sure prey to the birds. So if the apostles are to "cure" the sick, they must first protect and care for them, they must love them beyond all sense of overzealous righteousness and finger-pointing disgust. The healing of the boy will not simply happen because the apostles have seen Jesus, Elijah, and Moses flying in the air "miraculously"!


Again, just a few days after the painter from Urbino finished this work, the worms made Raphael Sanzio's eyes fodder, as my mom would have said.


The defiance of death and, paradoxically, the celebration of the human condition that this painting constitutes --- cast a very solar light on the mustard seed that we all carry within us, and perhaps on the Christian teaching of becoming like a child with eyes capable of understanding what others cannot.   The transfiguration makes possible  our own transfiguration or recreation as child of the Most High.  

The Transfiguration

Kathy Gajewski

8"   x  11
color pencil
2011

AFTERWORD

Some time after the visit recalled in the above paragraphs to Rapahel's "Transfiguration," I had occasion to return to this great panel in the PINACOTECA with two travellers from Saint Augustine, Florida, Kathy and James, who would become dear friends of mine in the course of the next few years, returning numerous times to visit other parts of Rome with me, as well as parts of Liguria, Tuscany, and Naples.

Kathy invariably came each of those times bringing me lots of gifts, including historical printed material about their old Florida city as well as a diversity of magic stones, stars on magic wands, and even aroma therapy that reminded me of old alchemical equipment used by sages of the Medieval world determined to find the Philosophical Stone or Egg, and transform base metals into GOLD. I still have and hold many of those gifts brought by Kathy.

But the most powerful treasure she brought me in 2011, signed "Katie'" was her own pencil drawing of the masterpiece by Raphael Sanzio, inspired , as she told me, by one of my own sketchbook studies in pencil, which she and James had insisted on purchasing from me as soon as they saw it.

Kathy was herself  the subject of her own transfiguration scene, and not too many years after our meeting, with her own eyes, gazed to the Sun-like figure of her pyramid of Light and was lifted to realms she must have intimated when she saw the original Raphael and as she took pencils in hand and drew her image on paper.