THE TRANSFIGURATION

(RAPHAEL)

MRS. JAMESON

The Transfiguration is an early subject in Christian Art, and has gone through different phases. It is given in the mosaics of S. Apollinare in Classe, at Ravenna (Sixth Century), in that reticence of form and emblematical character significant of classic Art. By the uninitiated the subject would not be readily deciphered. In the centre of the domed apse is a large jewelled cross, in the middle of which is the head of Christ. This represents the Lord. On each side are bust-lengths of Moses and Elijah, while below are three sheep, emblems of the three disciples.

Another form is seen in early miniatures—for instance, in a magnificent Evangelium preserved in the Cathedral at Aix-la-Chapelle. Here Christ is seen with three rays above Him; at His side are the full-length figures of Moses and Elijah; below are the three disciples—two crouching low in terror, while Peter raises himself, saying "Lord, it is good for us to be here," etc.

The next form is that given by early Byzantine artists, of a very formal and conventional character. Christ is in the mandorla, from which five rays of glory proceed. These five rays touch the prophets at His side, and the disciples, all three crouching low at His feet. We see Giotto scarcely emerging from this convention in his series in the Accademia.

The Transfiguration. Raphael.

The Transfiguration.
Raphael.

Fra Angelico has a more fanciful representation. The Christ has his arms extended, as a type of the death He was to suffer on the Cross. The disciples retain the traditional Byzantine positions. At the sides are the mere heads of the prophets, while the painter's adoration of the Virgin, and his homage toward St. Domenic, the founder of his order, are shown by their attendant figures.

It must be allowed that there could be no more daring or more difficult undertaking in Art than to represent by any human medium this transcendent manifestation of the superhuman character of the Redeemer. It has been attempted but seldom, and of course, however reverent and poetical the spirit in which the attempt has been made, it has proved, in regard to the height of the theme, only a miserable failure. I should observe, however, that the early artists hardly seem to have aimed at anything beyond a mere indication of an incident too important to be wholly omitted. In all these examples the representation of a visible fact has been predominant, the aim in the mind of the artist being to comply with some established conventional or theological rule.

Only in one instance has the vision of heavenly beatitude been used to convey the sublimest lesson to humanity, and thus the inevitable failure has been redeemed nobly, or, we might rather say, converted into a glorious success.

When Raphael, in the last year of his life, was commissioned by the Cardinal de' Medici to paint an altar-piece for the Cathedral of Narbonne, he selected for his subject the Transfiguration of our Lord.

Every one knows that this picture has a world-wide fame; it has, indeed, been styled the "greatest picture in the world;" it has also been criticised as if Raphael, the greatest artist who ever lived, had been here unmindful of the rules of Art. But it is clear that of those who have enthusiastically praised or daringly censured, few have interpreted its real significance. Some have erred in ignorantly applying the rules of Art where they were in no respect applicable. Others, not claiming to know anything, or care anything about rules of Art, insisting on their right to judge what is or is not intelligible to them, have given what I must needs call very absurd opinions about what they do not understand. It has been objected by one set of critics that there is a want of unity, that the picture is divided in two, and that these two parts not only do not harmonize, but "mutually hurt each other." Others say that the spiritual beatitude above, and the contortions of the afflicted boy below, present a shocking contrast. Others sneer at the little hillock or platform which they suppose is to stand for Mount Tabor, think the group above profane, and the group below horrible. Such as these, with a courage quite superior to all artistic criticism, and undazzled by the accumulated fame of five centuries, venture on a fiat which reminds one of nothing so much as Voltaire's ridicule of Hamlet, and his denunciation of that barbare, that imbécile de Shakespeare, who would not write so as to be appreciated by a French critic.

Now, in looking at the Transfiguration (and I hope the reader, if the original be far off, will at least have a good print before him while going over these following remarks), we must bear in mind that it is not an historical but a devotional picture—that the intention of the painter was not to represent a scene, but to excite religious feelings by expressing, so far as painting might do it, a very sublime idea, which it belongs to us to interpret.

I can best accomplish this, perhaps, by putting down naturally my own impressions, when I last had the opportunity of studying this divine picture.