Raphael, Transfiguration, c. 1516-20 (Vatican Museum, Rome)

Typically, Transfiguration pictures are quite dull, which is surprising and ironic given the spectacular nature of the event itself. There is one exception, however. This one. It’s Raphael. And I think it’s fabulous.

The canvas is divided almost in half, each showing a separate part of the story. On the top, Raphael depicts the actual Transfiguration, which took place on a mountainside with only Peter, James, and John present (it’s always them, right?). All of a sudden, Jesus’ face started shining and his clothes became dazzling white. What’s more, the long-dead Old Testament All-Stars—Moses and Elijah—appeared and started conversing with Jesus.

It must have been quite a sight … and it has proven to be nearly impossible to depict. Raphael does it by having the threesome float in front of a dramatic cloud that is lit with a bright light directly behind Christ. Jesus doesn’t glow, exactly, but you get the point. It’s dazzling. Then—even better—he shows Peter, James, and John shielding their eyes as they crouch on the ground, having been thrust there by the force of the spectacular transformation. Their body language tells the story.

Meanwhile, in the bottom half of the painting, the other disciples (at left) are trying desperately to heal a boy (in blue) who is possessed by a demon. Despite all their training with Jesus, they could not produce the miracle. You can sense the distress this has caused—their concern for the boy, while evident, is arguably surpassed by their concern about their own failure.

The two events took place at the same time, miles apart, but clearly they were connected in the gospel writer’s mind. Even as Jesus was displaying his power, the disciples were experiencing their own impotence. If only they could access that power. If only Christ was there. Indeed, miles away. They didn’t get it.

Raphael underscores the contrast with the dark shadow ringing the edge of the bluff. As viewers, we sense the huge gap between the power available through Christ and the inability of the disciples to access it.

And yet, Raphael does give us a clue to what happens next in the story. There is one lighter patch in the otherwise black shadow and it highlights the hand of a disciple who is pointing toward Christ. Importantly, it also creates a bridge over the gap. This disciple and at least one other seem to know where the power lies. And, sure enough, Jesus eventually comes down off the mountain and heals the boy himself, castigating the disciples for their lack of faith.

I’m not sure if this painting gives me hope or makes me feel depressed. How often do I feel this helpless. I admit, sometimes I am trying to solve a problem using my own devices—my reason, my creativity, my strong work ethic—but often I also pray, but nothing happens. I feel as desperate as these disciples look. The painting reminds me that I do have access to the power of God, but it also suggests that at least some of the disciples knew that too. So what gives? How much faith do we need? I don’t know, but if the disciples didn’t have it, what hope have I?

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