Art in focus – March 2023
Oil tempera on wood
Now in the Pinacoteca of the Vatican Museum
For a long period of art history, Raphael’s Transfiguration was considered the greatest painting in the world. It was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici and was the last painting by the Italian High Renaissance master, who died aged 37. It is based on Matthew’s account of the moment when Jesus took Peter, James and John to the peak of a mountain. Matthew writes: He was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Raphael imagines the scene in the top half of his painting; the disciples and Hebrew prophets creating a mystical circle.
But what is happening in the bottom section? A turmoil of bodies, violent gestures, fraught expressions, a sense of panic, frustration and fear. Matthew, who is probably the figure in the bottom left-hand corner, is showing the viewer what was happening while the transfiguration was taking place. A boy, described as epileptic in modern translations, had been brought to the disciples. They tried to heal him, as they had seen Jesus do, but they couldn’t. It was not until Jesus returned that the boy was healed. The poet Goethe wrote about this work: ‘The two [parts of the painting] are one: below – suffering, need; above – effective power, succour. Each bearing on the other, both interacting with one another.’
Art in focus is curated by Meryl Doney