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.

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.

If we remove to a certain distance from it, so that the forms shall become vague, indistinct, and only the masses of colour and the light and shade perfectly distinguishable, we shall see that the picture is indeed divided as if horizontally, the upper half being all light, and the lower half comparatively all dark. As we approach nearer, step by step, we behold above, the radiant figure of the Saviour floating in mid air, with arms outspread, garments of transparent light, glorified visage upturned as in rapture, and the hair uplifted and scattered as I have seen it in persons under the influence of electricity. On the right, Moses; on the left, Elijah; representing, respectively, the old law and the old prophecies, which both testified of Him. The three disciples lie on the ground, terror-struck, dazzled. There is a sort of eminence or platform, but no perspective, no attempt at real locality, for the scene is revealed as in a vision, and the same soft transparent light envelops the whole. This is the spiritual life, raised far above the earth, but not yet in heaven. Below is seen the earthly life, poor humanity struggling helplessly with pain, infirmity, and death. The father brings his son, the possessed, or, as we should now say, the epileptic boy, who ofttimes falls into the water or into the fire, or lies grovelling on the earth, foaming and gnashing his teeth; the boy struggles in his arms—the rolling eyes, the distorted features, the spasmodic limbs are at once terrible and pitiful to look on.

Such is the profound, the heart-moving significance of this wonderful picture. It is, in truth, a fearful approximation of the most opposite things; the mournful helplessness, suffering, and degradation of human nature, the unavailing pity, are placed in immediate contrast with spiritual light, life, hope—nay, the very fruition of heavenly rapture.

It has been asked, who are the two figures, the two saintly deacons, who stand on each side of the upper group, and what have they to do with the mystery above, or the sorrow below? Their presence shows that the whole was conceived as a vision, or a poem. The two saints are St. Lawrence and St. Julian, placed there at the request of the Cardinal de' Medici, for whom the picture was painted, to be offered by him as an act of devotion as well as munificence to his new bishopric; and these two figures commemorate in a poetical way, not unusual at the time, his father, Lorenzo, and his uncle, Giuliano de' Medici. They would be better away; but Raphael, in consenting to the wish of his patron that they should be introduced, left no doubt of the significance of the whole composition—that it is placed before worshippers as a revelation of the double life of earthly suffering and spiritual faith, as an excitement to religious contemplation and religious hope.

In the Gospel, the Transfiguration of our Lord is first described, then the gathering of the people and the appeal of the father in behalf of his afflicted son. They appear to have been simultaneous; but painting only could have placed them before our eyes, at the same moment, in all their suggestive contrast. It will be said that in the brief record of the Evangelist, this contrast is nowhere indicated, but the painter found it there and was right to use it—just the same as if a man should choose a text from which to preach a sermon, and, in doing so, should evolve from the inspired words many teachings, many deep reasonings, besides the one most obvious and apparent.

But, after we have prepared ourselves to understand and to take into our heads all that this wonderful picture can suggest, considered as an emanation of the mind, we find that it has other interests for us, considered merely as a work of Art. It was the last picture which came from Raphael's hand; he was painting on it when seized with his last illness. He had completed all the upper part of the composition, all the ethereal vision, but the lower part of it was still unfinished, and in this state the picture was hung over his bier, when, after his death, he was laid out in his painting-room, and all his pupils and his friends, and the people of Rome, came to look upon him for the last time; and when those who stood round raised their eyes to the Transfiguration, and then bent them on the lifeless form extended beneath it, "every heart was like to burst with grief" (faceva scoppiare l' anima di dolore a ognuno che quivi guardava), as, indeed, well it might.

Two-thirds of the price of the picture, 655 duccati di camera, had already been paid by the Cardinal de' Medici; and, in the following year, that part of the picture which Raphael had left unfinished was completed by his pupil Giulio Romano, a powerful and gifted but not a refined or elevated genius. He supplied what was wanting in the colour and chiaroscuro according to Raphael's design, but not certainly as Raphael would himself have done it. The sum which Giulio received he bestowed as a dowry on his sister, when he gave her in marriage to Lorenzetto the sculptor, who had also been a pupil and friend of Raphael. The Cardinal did not send the picture to Narbonne, but, unwilling to deprive Rome of such a masterpiece, he presented it to the Church of San Pietro in Montorio, and sent in its stead the Raising of Lazarus, by Sebastian del Piombo, now in our National Gallery. The French carried off the Transfiguration to Paris in 1797, and, when restored, it was placed in the Vatican, where it now is. TheCommunion of St. Jerome, by Domenichino, is opposite to it, and it is a sort of fashion to compare them, and with some to give the preference to the admirable picture by Domenichino; but the two are so different in aim and conception, the merits of each are so different in kind, that I do not see how any comparison can exist between them.

The History of Our Lord, as exemplified in Works of Art, continued and completed by Lady Eastlake (2nd ed., London, 1865).