Thursday 6 August 2009

The Transfiguration

Raphael's famous last painting, unfinished at his death and now in the Vatican Picture Gallery, was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici as an altarpiece for his cathedral in Narbonne in southern France. The narrative of the Transfiguration in the upper part of the painting is combined with that of the disciples' unsuccessful attempt to cure the epileptic demoniac and which follows the account in St Matthew's Gospel in the lower half of the painting. Interestingly, two figures shown on the top left hand side seen witnessing the event are identified as the martyrs Ss. Felicissimus and Agapitus whose commemoration coincided with that of the feast of the Transfiguration on 6th August- an item that should alert us to the fact that we are presented with something more than a mere sub-photographic illustration of the scriptural story.

Giulio Romano, Raphael's assistant and heir, is believed to have completed it after the master's early death,( aged thirty-seven) in 1520, being paid for it three years later when, instead of the painting's being sent to France, it went to the Cardinal's titular church in Rome, San Pietro in Montorio. Nevertheless the painting did go subsequently to France, looted by Napoleon in 1797 - before being returned to Rome in the settlement following Bonaparte's defeat at Waterloo. Why Cardinal de Medici had originally intended the painting for Narbonne is mysterious since he might easily, had he so wished, destined it for one of his other cathedrals. He was simultaneously Archbishop of Florence and Bishop of Worcester both of which have cathedrals of iconic status - in the latter case since it featured on the back of the Elgar £20 note. This was, however, before his career really took off!

If I seem to be rambling, please bear with me, for the most eminent and most reverend Lord Julius, Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church became, in the fulness of time, Pope Clement VII and, as far as I am aware, the only former bishop of Worcester to become Pope. Had he ever visited his cathedral of Worcester he would have been able to admire the beautiful chantry chapel housing the tomb of Arthur Prince of Wales, elder brother of Henry VIII and, of course, it was to be Henry's demand for an annulment of his marriage to Queen Catherine that Clement VII famously turned down. After that things were pretty grim in England for about three hundred years as is well known. Instead of bishops who were potential popes and patrons of the arts, monstrous iconoclausts like Hugh Latimer, who had the statue of Our Lady of Worcester stripped of its jewels and burnt, took their place.

In 1829, the year of Catholic Emancipation, the Jesuits in Worcester opened what was the basis of the present St George's church. Thanks to the patronage of the Earl of Shrewsbury a near lifesize copy of Raphael's painting of the "Transfiguration" by an English artist named Furse was acquired in Rome in 1837 and placed over the high altar where it may be seen to this day.

Like Leonardo's "Last Supper", Raphael's "Transfiguration" has a peculiar status. Once seen it is hard to imagine the subject any other way. In this sense one might call it "iconic"- or even "canonic". It has a special place in my affections in part because it is the first painting I recall seeing. Appropriate, perhaps, since I was born on the Second Sunday in Lent - which is like the 6th August- except it was in March!

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