Friday 6 August 2010

The Transfiguration of the Lord

Raphael's painting of The Transfiguration, now in the Vatican Picture Gallery. was comissioned in 1517 by Cardinal Giulio de Medici and appears to have been intended as an altarpiece for one of his cathedrals, Narbonne, in southern France. I do not know why he meant to favour this see because he was simultaneously Archbishop of Florence and Bishop of Worcester both of which had fine cathedrals! (Note, the original and real Worcester in England!) Unfortunately Raphael died before he could fill in all the colours and the delay in its completion resulted in the picture's remaining in Rome. The patron, however, was on an upward trajectory, being elected Pope as Clement VII in 1523. His was a somewhat eventful pontificate during which he, very properly, denied Henry VIII the annulment of his marriage to Queen Katherine but also saw the virulent spread of the Protestant heresies and Henry's mischief.

Some three hundred years later, in 1837, a near life size copy by an English artist named Furse was given by one of the Earls of Shrewsbury to Saint George's Catholic Church in Worcester where it is to this day. Perhaps it is as well that the original was not sent to the cathedral there given the vicious iconoclasm that was unleashed by wicked men like Hugh Latimer.

Raphael's painting skillfully combines the narrative of the Transfiguration (Matt.17, 1-8) in the upper half of the picture with the story of the disciples' unsuccessful attempt to cure the epileptic demoniac(Matt.17,14-21) in the lower half. This both heightens the dramatic impact of the image and provides a contrast or counterpoint to the revelation on the mountain. From the Gospel text we might easly infer that the artist has sought to represent the scene as it might have appeared but not so. The main figures in the upper register are easily recognised - or are they?

Besides the figure of Christ we observe Moses (with the tablets of the Law) and Elijah. Fallen on the ground we see the three Apostles, Peter, James and John. Immediately to the left, however, are two other figures who, kneeling, look upon the scene- one of whom is clearly wearing the dalmatic of a deacon. These are believed to be the martyrs SS Felicissimus and Agapitus whose commemoration coincides in the traditional calendar with the feast of the Transfiguration on 6th August. There is more to Raphael's "Transfiguration" than meets the eye.

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