Raphael's Transfiguration as visio-devotional program.

Author:Kleinbub, Christian K.
Position:Critical essay

Even to his contemporaries, Raphael's Transfiguration (ca. 1518-20) must have seemed both beautiful and strange (Fig. 1). Combining two distinct narrative subjects with anachronistic witnesses in a single setting, it had few equivalents for sheer complexity among altarpieces of its period, being marvelous not only for its diversity of elements but also for the harmony of their integration. For today's viewer, the complexity of the altarpiece remains one aspect of its fascination, for despite the considerable progress made toward understanding the work, no definitive interpretation has emerged that convincingly explains its unusual features in terms of a cohesive program or meaning. (1) In supplying the program that is lacking, I argue that Raphael created an unprecedented hybrid: a marriage between the new style of the historiated altarpiece and the spiritual functions of traditional sacred images communicated through a complex iconography of physical and spiritual vision.

Sacred images had long been defined by their ability to arouse contemplative attitudes in their beholders. Medieval thinkers often defined the devotional function of the sacred image as its ability to channel the response of the viewer from sensible surfaces to contemplation of divine things: the viewer was enjoined to perceive the image with the eyes, recall its subject from memory, and then meditate on its spiritual meaning. (2) Approached in the proper way, the image served as a vehicle or physical sign--rather than a self-sufficient object--referring beyond representation to the Deity. (3) These established attitudes about the function of images survived well into the early modern period, enjoying continued respect even as late medieval and Renaissance artists increasingly embraced the visceral, physical power of more naturalistic imagery, thereby further complicating the traditional contemplative functions of their works. (4) Indeed, these artists continued to create prominent religious images that promoted the shift from what was called corporeal to incorporeal vision, and whose ultimate goal, in theory if not always in practice, was to inspire a state of imageless contemplation. (5)

The viewer's elevation from corporeal to incorporeal visual experience in front of the devotional image indicates that the period's visuality--the totality of its concepts about vision--differed from our own. (6) According to the classic formulation of Saint Augustine in On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis, vision could be divided into three classes: physical, imaginative, and intellectual. Whereas physical vision referred to the sensible perception of the world through the bodily eyes, imaginative and intellectual vision described "spiritual," "incorporeal," or "internal" visual processes. Imaginative vision perceived images recalled or evoked in the imagination, the organ of Aristotelian faculty psychology that roughly corresponds with what today is called the memory; intellectual vision was used to behold abstract concepts that had no physical corollaries in images at all. (7)

The three modalities of vision were related in terms of a functional hierarchy. The person who hoped to understand God would pass sequentially from the perceptions of physical vision through the increasingly immaterial images of the imaginative and intellectual kinds. Augustine's analysis of the modalities of vision arose from the necessity of explaining Paradise as portrayed in Genesis, but he concentrated the main part of his analysis on 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, in which Paul tells of his vision of the Third Heaven. In examining the enigma of Paul's experience, Augustine demonstrated that intellectual vision, being altogether detached from the corporeal images used in physical and imaginative vision, was to be considered the loftiest of all visual modalities, the means by which the blessed saw God's very essence in the beatific vision. (8)

Theological discussion of vision reached a high point during the Middle Ages when the Scholastics debated, resolved, and codified the central ideas about the varieties and operations of bodily and spiritual vision. (9) Especially impressive for its detailed analyses of visual and visionary phenomena, Thomas Aquinas's Summa theologica served as a compendium on numerous vision issues in later centuries. This was never truer than in Renaissance Rome, where Aquinas's theology enjoyed a virtually unrivaled prestige among the members of the curial establishment who were the patrons and advisers of much of the art produced there in this period. (10)

Theologians were not the only Renaissance people aware of the mechanics of spiritual vision. Whereas theologians knew their Augustine and Aquinas, laymen could rely on vernacular texts as diverse as Dante's Divine Comedy, Girolamo Savonarola's sermons, and Baldassare Castiglione's Book of the Courtier to understand vision and visionary issues. (11) Given the wide variety of sources that inculcated both general and arcane aspects of vision theory, it should be assumed that literate artists had a fair grasp of the topic, with some attaining to real sophistication. Just as we can adduce a long line of Renaissance artists who were deeply invested in issues of physical vision--a topic not as far removed from problems of spiritual perception as one might think--we have, in the poetry of Michelangelo, rich documentation of at least one artist's incessant ruminations on the mental and spiritual potentials of vision in relation to his art. (12)

It it probable that Raphael, like his sophisticated peers and predecessors, was sufficiently saturated with information on these matters as to engage vision issues on a relatively complex level, supplementing what he did not know of specifics by discussing the problem with theological advisers. Raphael may have received the foundations of his education in the theological issues of vision early on from Fra Bartolommeo, the Dominican painter with whom he exchanged artistic knowledge and probably some particulars of Dominican theology while living in Florence. (13) That there was a theological exchange between the two artists is suggested by Raphael's use of cloud putti in works like the Disputa, Madonna di Foligno (Fig. 2), and Sistine Madonna. Although Raphael's source for his cloud putti has been heretofore uncertain, it can be shown that the device descends from examples in Bartolommeo's so-called Lucca Altarpiece (Fig. 3) and other Dominican contexts. (14) This fact becomes important when it is realized that these cloud putti probably ultimately derive from Aquinas's theory of the physical visionary, his theory proposing that some apparitions are really angelic simulacra shaped from the air in a process resembling the condensation of clouds. (15)


Examples of Raphael's exposure to the theology of vision could be multiplied, and his knowledge of the topic undoubtedly grew once he began his Roman career and had contact with such important theologians as the general of the Augustinian order, Egidio da Viterbo. (16) The point remains that Raphael had obtained at a relatively early age a substantial foundation for thinking about the visionary in independent terms. It is perhaps enough to add that there is some indication of Raphael's theological sophistication in one of the few texts that survive from his own hand. In a fragmentary poem, Raphael compares his amorous rapture to that of Paul's visionary ecstasy:

Como non podde dir d'arcana Dei Paul como dis[c]eso fu dal cello cosi el mi[o] cor d'uno amoroso vello a ricoperto tuti i penser mei (Just as Paul could not speak of the hidden God, once descended from heaven, so my heart with a lovely veil covered all my thoughts) (17) Considered alongside the numerous theological references in Raphael's Roman-period works, these lines have been taken as evidence of the artist's considerable knowledge of theology. (18) It is relevant here to note that the poem would have been largely meaningless without a basic understanding of theological discussions about Paul's vision of the Third Heaven, and visionary phenomena more generally.


If Renaissance artists like Raphael paid special attention to theories of spiritual vision, it was at least partly because they registered an artistic problem within the contemporary theory and practice of painting. For one thing, Renaissance theories of painting--theories articulated by the likes of Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci--did not explicitly acknowledge the potential for visionary experience in painted works. Instead, theory proclaimed that painting's immediate imperative was to present the optical sensations of the world as known to the physical eyes and as rendered by means of perspective, a device based in the presumed geometries of corporeal seeing. (19)

But if naturalism and illusionism might become problematic in the context of religious art, sometimes seeming to lead to the exclusion of higher orders of vision from painting's province, the growing prestige and popularity of the figural narrative, or istoria, raised important concerns as well. (20) In particular, the early cinquecento proliferation of narrative subject matter in devotional contexts complicated the traditional spiritual goals of more iconic religious images. (21) Encouraging the deployment of dramatic movement, asymmetry, and contextual detail, the historicization of devotional works could detract from the contemplative aims traditionally served by the stillness, axial symmetry, and idealization common in earlier periods. (22) The consequences of this development for altarpieces became especially apparent over time. Whereas quattrocento altarpieces with narrative subjects typically preserved the frontality, iconic focus, and ambiance of timelessness of traditional sacre conversazioni, privileging the spiritual dignity of the actors over the plot of the event...

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