The place of Raphael's “Transfiguration” in an art museum and not in a place of worship means the “most beautiful painting in the world” has lost most of its ability to speak, an article in L'Osservatore Romano has claimed. The Vatican newspaper says that the venue rendered the artwork into little more than an object.
Raphael's final work, the "Transfiguration" was painted on a wooden surface over a period of four years up until his death in 1620. Centuries ago it hung in a church. Since then, it has been on display in the Vatican Museums' Pinacoteca, or picture gallery, for the last 200 years.
The painting draws from St. Matthew's Gospel. In its upper portion is the Transfigured Christ with Moses and Elijah. At their feet are Peter, James, and John. In the foreground are the other Apostles and onlookers, including a possessed young man recounted in the gospel.
Giorgio Vasari, Raphael's 16th century biographer and noted artist himself, described the work as "the most famous, the most beautiful and most divine."
In an Aug. 6 article, LOR's Marco Agostini described at length the feeling and meaning expressed in each stroke of Raphael's brush and the "violent" interplay of light and darkness and good and evil across the painting, whose presence is imposing both up close and from a distance.
As it hung in the Roman church of St. Peter in Montorio before it was eventually placed in the Vatican Museums, he observed, it would have had a favorable effect in the eyes of the faithful as they approached the altar.
The placement of the altarpiece behind the high altar also would have enhanced the effect. Agostini mused that in the celebration of the Mass the priest would have seen the "liberation" of the possessed youth in the lower part of the work, while the faithful would have been able to contemplate the Transfiguration above the priest.
During the consecration, the "transfiguration" of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ would have been visually supported by Raphael's painting, he explained, through the apostles who draw attention upwards in the work.
At the moment of the elevation, added Agostini, the gaze of the apostles in the painting would have centered on the Host, superimposed on the "blazing Christ" behind. This arrangement invites the faithful to a deeper contemplation of the mystery of the liturgy.
Reflecting on the difference in effect between the artwork’s former and present venue, Agostini asserted, "A work of sacred art placed in a museum, even with the best intentions and perhaps better protected, loses three-quarters of its verbal capacity just for the fact that it is placed outside of the context for which it was created.
"Today," he concluded, "in the Pinacoteca, the Transfiguration is only an object, still among the most excellent, lined up with many others, but devoid of the strength that came from it as part of the liturgical mystery, of the place of prayer."