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Art for Meditation - October 2017


Raphael, Raffaello Sanzio (Urbino, 1483 - Rome, 1520), The Transfiguration, 1518-20, oily tempera on wood, cm 405 x 278, Vatican City, Vatican Museums


This impressive work - perhaps the last of the great painter from Marche region – presents, for the first time together, two distinct episodes of the Gospel of Matthew, which are narrated in succession in the first part of chapter 17. They are the transfiguration (17:1-8) and the healing of the possessed child (17:14-18).

After all, the composition itself is presented on two distinct levels, both from a formal - one is placed above the other – and thematic standpoint.

In the upper part, set on the "high mountain" of which the Gospel speaks, there is Jesus placed in the centre, wrapped in light, which seems to be in the act of lifting. The scene represents what the evangelical tale says: "There He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light" (17:2). Jesus seems to emanate a wind that moves the clothes of Moses and Elijah, witnesses to the transfiguration, and that seems to crush Peter, James and John, the three disciples that Jesus had brought with him, on the ground.

The action taking place in the bottom part is, on the other hand, much more excited. There are all the other apostles, but the focus of the representation is not the centre, as above, but it is on the right, where there is the possessed child, with his eyes turned upward, and the circle of relatives who have accompanied him to seek Jesus' help.

Even the light in the two scenes is very different. In the upper scene, there is a full light, hitting and enveloping Jesus; in the lower scene, there is a tepid light, alternated with shadows, thus creating an interesting chiaroscuro effect.

In fact, we know from the Gospel that the agitation of the apostles and the child's family is due to the fact that the father - when he can finally present his son - tells Jesus: "Lord, have mercy on my son, for he has seizures and is suffering terribly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not heal him" (17:15-16).

Therefore Raphael, at the bottom of this great painting, seems to show us the unsuccessful attempt of the disciples, who are perhaps so agitated because they are discussing what to do while Jesus is on the mountain.

And whereas Jesus shows his glory to Peter, James and John, those who have remained in the valley are unable to meet the needs of the people. Why?

“Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?”. He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (17:19-20).

Lord, increase our faith!


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