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A power struggle inside the Catholic church lies behind Raphael’s Transfiguration

by Marco Carminati

Raphael's Transfiguration, now preserved in the Vatican Museums, is the last work by the great master from Urbino. Raphael was still completing the painting in his Roman workshop when he suddenly died, aged 37, on April 6, 1520.

This artwork was also in the spotlight at the painter's wake: as we know, in fact, the large oil on wood painting was placed behind the artist's head as he lay on his deathbed. Since then, generations of art enthusiasts and scholars have examined this masterpiece, but no one has come to understand the connection between the upper and the lower part of the painting.

At the top, Jesus is transfigured into light on Mount Tabor in the presence of the three apostles Peter, James and John, before whom the prophets Elijah and Moses make their appearance in conversation with the Lord. Up to here, Raphael sticks to interpreting the Gospel story of Mark, Matthew and Luke.

The scene at the bottom is also inspired by the Gospel of Matthew: to the left, a big crowd leads a possessed boy to the nine Apostles who have remained at the foot of the mountain, but none of them is able to heal him.

Only Jesus - the holy book says - would succeed in doing so. From here sprang the iconographic riddle. Pages and pages were written to try to explain this juxtaposition which apparently lacks an explanation. Nevertheless, there must have been a precise reason for it, since in Raphael's times it was unacceptable for an artist to freely arrange the composition of a sacred subject at his will.

The solution might be found in a late 15th-century theological treatise, the Apocalypsis Nova. The book is attributed to Amadeo Menez da Silva, a Spanish-Portuguese Franciscan hermit, visionary and prophet. Amadeo had been called to Rome as Pope Sixtus IV's confessor.

Reading this text, Italian scholar Stefania Pasti not only confirmed that long explanations are dedicated to the theme of Transfiguration and of the liberation of the possessed child, but she also noticed that the two events are linked and sequentially explained.

The Transfiguration is identified with the Last Judgment, and right after the part on the Transfiguration the text suddenly and without interruption describes the liberation of the possessed child.

At the end of this part, the treatise explains how Jesus was able to do what the Apostles had failed in doing. The explanation is enlightening. Jesus declared that the Apostles were not able to heal the child because he did not want them to, since the power to defeat Satan only comes from God.

The Transfiguration had been commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de' Medici, who had been appointed bishop of the French city of Narbonne, and the picture was intended for the Narbonne Cathedral.

Thus, the painting was, in the buyer's intentions, to be displayed in France. If so, to whom, then, was the painting's powerful and threatening message addressed?

Stefania Pasti offers the following explanation. Cardinal Giulio de' Medici had been appointed bishop of Narbonne even though the same diocese was already occupied by Guillaume Briçonnet the Younger, a member of a family that was close to the kings of France and an enemy of the Medicis and of the Papacy, and in particular of Pope Julius II della Rovere.

In those years, the Pope's and the Council's power was one of the most debated issues in Rome, and it should be noted that most of Leo X's pontificate was dedicated to eradicate the idea that a Council could prevail over the Pope's will.

A painting was thus needed that would convey a clear warning to the French clergy: Christ alone (i.e., the Pope) and not the Council (i.e. the assembly of the Apostles, standing powerless before the possessed boy), could have the power to defeat the Devil and lead the Church on its way to salvation.

And Raphael Sanzio - with an eye, as requested, on the Apocalypsis Nova - tried to depict this complex concept.