This painting is sick.
I was pointed to it by J. Monro Gibson, D.D. in his 1889 commentary on Matthew’s Gospel. In his comments about the descent from the mount of transfiguration he says, “It is very familiar to us through Raphael’s great painting; and we shall certainly not make the mistake of attempting to translate into our feeble words what is there seen, and may now be regarded as ‘known and read of all men.'”
Ashamedly, I admit I’d never seen this painting, which is Raphael’s last painting before his death at age 37. I agree with Dr. Gibson, this painting is a masterpiece of art and biblical interpretation. It is a faithful rendering of the juxtaposition between the glorious Christ in Matthew 17:1-8 and the faithless and perverted generation that dwelt below in Matthew 17:9-21.
In the painting, John, Peter, and James (wearing the colors that represent faith, hope, and love) are depicted below the shining Jesus with Moses on his left and Elijah on his right. Below, engulfed in darkness dwell the other nine disciples on the left, and the crowd with the “moonstruck” boy on the right. Note the reflection of the moon in the left bottom corner–the boy is literally “moonstruck” (σεληνιάζεται, in the Greek). Matthew is the apostle in the bottom left corner.
The use of chiaroscuro emphasizes Christ as the redemptive element, the light, that must enter the dark world of men. Without his power, men are helpless, as his disciples are unable to heal the boy without the power of Jesus in Matthew 17:16. The woman “clothed with the sun” in the midst of the dark generation represents the Church. She poses in the middle of the painting visually mirroring Jesus in a place of mediation, instructing Jesus’ disciples to bring the grace and gospel of Christ to a people in darkness.
If there was ever a Sunday I wish we had screens in our church, this might be it. Since I can’t share it with the church on Sunday, I’ll share it with you all.