Art History Analysis Essay
Renaissance was a period in Europe that existed during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Bespeaking “rebirth,” renaissance was a time focused on humanism (Kamien 75). As the term implied, humanism refers to “human life and its accomplishment (75). It was age where individualism, exploration and curiosity flourished. In art, painters such as Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael came to fame. Raphael, in fact, is considered as one of the most influential in Italian Renaissance, specifically during the High Renaissance (Zafran 142).
One of his most popular works is The Transfiguration.
The Transfiguration is Raphael’s last masterpiece. The altarpiece was ordered by then Cardinal Guilio de’Medici who would later become Pope Clement VII (Vatican Museums n.d.). It was one of the two paintings assigned to be housed for the cathedral of S. Giusto in Narborrne, the other one being the Raising of Lazarus assigned to Sebastiano del Piombo (n.d.). del Piombo was said to be a student of Raphael’s contender, Michelangelo (Kleinbub 2008).
According to stories, del Piombo was a devoted Michelangelo student, even going as far as “following” Michelangelo’s sketches in an attempt to tone with the artist’s creativity (2008). Raphael died before he could even finish The Transfiguration so one of his students, Guilio Romano, was said to complete the painting (Kirsch 89). When Raphael died in his 37th year, the painting was kept by the cardinal before it was donated to the church of S.Pietro in Montorio (n.d.). It now hangs in the Vatican Museum (89).
The painting is divided into two parts, the upper part reflects the transfiguration of Christ, while the lower part depicts another story in the Gospel- the Healing of a Boy with a Demon in the Gospel. The healing took place after the transfiguration of Jesus but Raphael combined the two in one painting, seemingly uniting them at one point. It combines two succeeding scenarios into one, creating more questions for its interpretations. One researcher opined that Raphael did this to marry two things: “new technique in altarpieces and the spirituality and sanctity of the images as seen in its iconography (Kleinbub 2008). It has been said, especially during the medieval times, that sacred images are thought to provoke spectators (2008). They believed that such images can rouse the viewer to contemplate by sensing the image and through memory, enable him to reflect on its “spiritual meaning” (2008). This train of though continued until the Renaissance where artists became more interested in creating an illusion of space and depth. This is evident in The Transfiguration. There are two scenes that unfold in the same setting. The two scenes do not interact in such a way that no figure above or below can be seen gazing upward or downward. But looking at the painting as a whole, there is somewhat unity. Yet, dividing the painting, the two scenes stand alone. It seems as is an invisible thread holds them together. Furthermore, it was been said that Raphael merged the two scenes in response to del Piombo’s work on Raising of Lazarus (2008). The two paintings use similar gestures such as hands pointing and the diagonal division in crowds (2008). This resulted in some saying that Raphael “borrowed” del Piombo’s ideas (2008). However, Raphael may have not “borrowed” that idea. In the Gospel, the two scenes occurred one after the other. Raphael may simply have maximized on that. While there have been earlier portrayals of the Transfiguration, the focus had solely been on the Transfiguration; no artist had even painted the transfiguration and the healing in one setting before Raphael (2008). In this way, Raphael was trailblazing.
The upper part illustrates the transfiguration of Jesus Christ (Urton 2005). Following the Gospel narration in Matthew 17: 1-13, Mark 9:2-13 and Luke 9: 28-36, it depicts Christ’s transfiguration at Mt. Tabor (New International Version of The Holy Bible 1978). In the Gospel, Jesus made his transfiguration or divine appearance before this three disciples- Peter, James and John (1978). Dressed in white, Jesus “shone like the sun” and was flanked by Moses and Elijah (1978). In The Transfiguration, it can be seen that Jesus, dressed in white, enveloped by a cloud, is surrounded by two men, clearly Moses and Elijah. Below them are three men- Peter, James and John who seemed frightened judging by their stance- they were kneeled down, facedown and were seen shielding they eyes, somewhat blinded by the transfiguration and the brightness that shrouded them. In the Gospel, a voice from the cloud was heard: “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him! (Matthew 17:5) (1978). On the left side of the painting, there are two men who saw the transfiguration and are kneeling. The men are said to be deacons epitomizing the martyred patron saints of Narbonne- Justus and Pastor (Kleinbub 2008). Perhaps the reason why Raphael chose to include these two deacons is simply because the painting was commissioned for the church in Narbonne. It was probably a deliberate move on the part of Raphael to include Narbonne in the composition. It was his own way of paying tribute and acknowledgement to Narbonne and what better way was to involve its patron saints. In this time and age, this move would have been a perfect example of toadying up to the boss or the benefactor. Maybe it was and some could say that Raphael could have done the painting without the two figures, that adding them just to represent Narbonne was crass and useless. After all, the two figures do not balance the painting for there is nothing on the right side that keeps the scene in equilibrium. But Raphael had his reason, maybe when it was commissioned, he though it was the only way to give honor to Narbonne. The deed was done and in actuality, the inclusion of the two figures somehow adds more interest to the masterpiece, it keeps the spectator drawn into it. People are aware of the transfiguration and the characters involved so when they see two additional figures, they start wondering who they are and what role they play in the scene. Given this line of thought, the inclusion of two unrelated figures in the biblical transfiguration makes it more human. Additionally, the painting evinces as an art from the Renaissance period, focusing on humanity. The insertion of two deacons makes it realistic, creative.
The second part of the painting, the scene in the foreground depicts the second story in the Gospel- the healing of the possessed boy. This part is said to be completed by Romano, since Raphael had already died. In the Gospel, the nine remaining apostles tried to heal a demon-possessed boy but failed to do so. Following Christ’s transfiguration, he descends from the mountain and heals the boy, telling the apostles that they were not able to heal him because they had no faith (New International Version of The Holy Bible, 1978). Dr. Bendersky, a Philadelphia cardiologist said that the boy, held by another man, perhaps his father, was in the final phase of a seizure (Honan 1995). In Mark 9:14-17, he was portrayed as foaming at the mouth and becoming rigid” (1978). However, Dr. Bendersky said that Raphael’s depiction is that of a boy who has come of an attack, given his “opposing eyes and open mouth (1995). He also argued that typically to showcase a demonic possession, a small would be seen from one’s mouth. In The Transfiguration, the boy’s open mouth signified that the devil had already departed from his spirit, rather than a boy who was still being possessed. This acute interpretation gives another depth to The Transfiguration.
The painting exemplifies chiaroscuro, or the strong contrast between light and dark. The upper part of the painting is light while the lower half is dark. This may symbolize purity as opposed to the dark scene unfolding at the foreground, which may be attributed to terror and despair.
The Transfiguration displays both naturalism and illusionism. Not only does it show iconography visually but it also moves it beyond its physicality. It provides an image of faith- and spiritual knowledge- visually and internally.
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