Framed within a great arch of gorgeous marble, the whole constitutes an effect so radiantly beautiful that one might well imagine it to be a sunlit vision of another and better world.
This masterpiece is on the southeast wall of the dome (number 14 on the plan of St. Peter’s), opposite the statue of St. Peter. So in standing here, the entrance is behind us, the statue of St. Peter is off to our right, and the High Altar is beyond the pillar against which we are looking. The picture is an exact reproduction of Raphael’s painting in the Vatican and looks as if it were painted on canvas, but in reality it is composed of thousands of pieces of variously tinted stone, which reproduce to perfection every shade of color and every expression of the original. The extreme delicacy of the work and the length of time required for a single picture make these mosaic copies of immeasurable value ; and yet, St. Peter’s contains more than one hundred, all the work of the great masters, and these, together with the splendid tombs, render the walls of the church sublime with the highest representations of the beautiful. This one copy of the Transfiguration cost fifty thousand dollars.
We shall miss its charm and power if we but glance hastily at this picture, for, by universal consent, it is one of the greatest paintings in the world. Look long and deeply into it, and you will see why when, in the grandest funeral procession that Rome had seen for centuries, they bore young Raphael to the Pantheon for burial, they carried the original of this, his masterpiece, at the head of the procession.
The artist has been criticised for attempting to pro-duce, in a single picture, two centers of conflicting interest, thereby diverting, if not confusing, the mind of the beholder. The principal portion and the real center of the painting is, as its name implies, the Transfiguration, and, therefore, it seems decidedly peculiar to have the glorified Saviour and his celestial visitors together with the prostrate disciples dazzled by the insufferable brightness, occupying the upper and smaller portion of the painting, while the demoniac boy and the company surrounding him occupy the foreground and larger part. Most people, I should imagine, would have preferred the Transfiguration by itself, and, indeed, we are told on the best authority, that such was also the preference of Raphael, but that the monks of S. Pietro in Montorio, for whom the picture was painted, insisted upon having the double picture, it being almost the universal custom of the age to have two pictures in one, a celestial and a terrestrial one, and each independent of the other. Even a Raphael and a Shakespeare were not superior to the demands of their patrons, which often reflected the degenerate tendency of the times. And yet, so masterfully has Raphael executed the difficult undertaking, that anyone at all familiar with the Scripture narrative, can see, as Goethe did, a subtle and indissoluble unity in the whole painting, and can understand how the great painter, who was then in the full glory and ripeness of his powers, saw and interpreted that vision of light as the only source of the world’s healing.
The lower part of the painting was not finished when Raphael died, and, after his decease, other hands tried to complete it ; but the hands were not those of the great master, nor were the colors his; and it re-quires no great expert to detect where the brush fell from Raphael’s fingers, and where it was taken up again by his successors.
Half of the painting is light, all light, and such as ” never was on sea or land,” and the other half, the lower, is all darkness, which characterizes indefinable terror and despair. How real it all seems, how full of pathos and heavenly comfort, the demon-torn boy, the agonizing father and mother, the baffled and help-less disciples and the transfigured Lord, from whom the help must come ! And it may be that Raphael painted wiser and better than he knew when he flashed all this on canvas, and, in his last earthly effort, executed one of the grandest paintings in the world. And it may have been also what we call accident that the most precious and exquisite marble in this treasure-house of rare and beautiful stones should have been wrought into the superb arch and pillars and delicate balustrade surrounding the wonderful mosaic, which is never so entrancing, as when the glowing tints of the Italian sun fall upon it, imparting to its warm coloring a pure and rosy light.
“A calm, benignant beauty shines on all this picture and goes directly to the heart. It seems almost to call you by name. The sweet and sublime face of Jesus is beyond praise, yet how it disappoints all florid expectations ! It was painted for such as had eyes capable of being touched by simplicity and lofty emotions.”- Emerson.
The noble female figure of Faith holding the cross, which you notice close to us on our right, belongs to a neighboring chapel, but it harmonizes so well with the Transfiguration as to seem almost a part of it, a sort of jeweled link between the upper and lower parts of the picture, for said not the Transfigured One Himself, when He had come down from the mountain and had healed the child : ” If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed-nothing shall be impossible unto you.”
Leaving this bit of heaven’s glory, we pass to our right in front of the High Altar and beyond it, to the farther side of the northwest dome pillar, where we shall see what is frequently, but I think erroneously, called Canova’s greatest work (number II in the plan of St. Peter’s), the monument and tomb of Clement XIII.