Transfiguration (Raphael): A Look at His Last Masterpiece

Transfiguration is the last commission that Raphael almost finished before passing away due to his illness. Here’s an in-depth account of this emotional and symbolic artwork.

Transfiguration (Raphael)

The unabating activity of the last years of Raphael’s life left its marks even upon the documents. In terms of historical context, we know that the letters of Bembo to Bibbiena showed Raphael as the painter of scholarly court. There is little to least known about the earlier life of Raphael, but his later commissioned works, broadcasting the divinity and excellence of his works at the peak, made him unquestionably the most significant artist of the Italian Renaissance. To call him a great painter due to the divinity in his paintings, especially Madonna, is certainly true, as far as it goes. Because he was preoccupied with the subject of the Virgin and Child throughout his creative career, his numerous Madonnas illustrate his entire evolution of artworks. But, if we overlook his many paintings over his Madonnas, it would be unfair to our super-talented artist. Giorgio Vasari states in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architect about Raphael, “With what liberality heaven can occasionally pour out the whole wealth of its treasures, all talents and outstanding skills, into the single person… is clearly evident in Raffaello Sanzio of Urbino, who stood out as much for his rare personal charm as for his unique genius.” And somehow, tracing history through various sources made us think that Vasari was absolutely right about Raphael. Coming from his artworks, one of the most significant Madonna by Raphael is the Sistine Madonna. Today, we are looking over the most divine and excellent work by Raphael, which is also his last known painting, Transfiguration commonly addressed as Transfiguration (Raphael). So, let us take a moment to watch out for the holy artwork and get closer to its aspects so that we appreciate its beauty in detail.

General Information About Transfiguration by Raphael.

1. Artist Statement.

“To paint a beautiful woman, I should first prefer to see many beautiful women, but with the condition that you, sir, would be with me to choose the best. But because there is a famine both of good judges and of beautiful women, I satisfy myself with a certain idea which comes to my mind.”

2. Subject Matter.

We will later understand in detail the three sections in which the subject matter is divided in the Transfiguration (Raphael). As an introduction to the artwork, let me describe its subject matter in the simplest terms possible. The painting Transfiguration of Christ is based on a biblical passage from the Gospels. Christ goes up the mountain with Peter, John, and James to pray, and just after that, Moses and Elijah show themselves, initially unnoticed by the disciples. When they finally notice them, a cloud appears from where God’s voice comes over, and Christ appears above them, transfigured with the two prophets beside him. This is what you see in the upper half of the picture. Now, the lower half of the painting shows the possessed boy with the consternation of the apostles and relatives, the event in the Bible that follows this transfiguration. Raphael joined these two events- boy healing and transfiguration in this painting. The boy’s condition isn’t good, which Raphael depicts well in the darker atmospheric setting. There is a use of tons of expressions, mannerisms, and emotional involvement in the artwork. We will discuss them in detail in the later sections.

Transfiguration by Raphael
Transfiguration by Raphael | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

3. Artist.

Raphael, one of the leading artists of the Renaissance, created this painting. He painted many portraits of key contemporary figures and was commissioned by the Pope to paint frescoes in the Vatican, an endeavor that lasted many years. Raphael studied the art of antiquity and absorbed its influences into his work; the artist also supervised the building of St Peter’s and started a workshop with several pupils and assistants, at least one of whom became famous Giulio Romano. All of this was accomplished in a short or brief time as he lived just thirty-six years, dying at thirty-seven after a brief illness, a period when the Pope almost daily visited him at his bedside.

4. Date.

Transfiguration (Raphael) dates back to 1519-20 on a panel by the legendary artist.

5. Provenance.

In 1518, Raphael was in Rome, and besides the architecture and decoration of the Loggia of the Vatican, he carried out classes for many of his pupils to direct them his art style while taking constant care of the labor of St. Peter’s and several private commissions. In 1513, Lorenzo dei Medici brought Leonardo da Vinci as an Ambassador to the Court of Francis. In 1517, Raphael began the picture of St. Michael Slaying the Dragon, which is now in the Louvre. Alongside, he painted the Holy Family of Francis. After both paintings were finished in 1518, Raphael left Rome, and correspondence between Lorenzo’s agents in France and Rome describes the panels traveling on muleback under the charge of a pupil of Raphael. During this same time, the half-length picture of Joanna of Aragon was painted under his directions for the French Court, sent through Bibbiena at the end of the year, which Raphael himself admits was the work of one of his assistants. Lastly, the great picture of the Transfiguration, which Lorenzo ordered, might have begun at this time, for Sebastiano del Piombo’s letters to Michelangelo at this time contain remarks that can only be understood as referring to the picture by Raphael competing with his own Raising of Lazarus at the time.

Above is the little back story behind the composture, Transfiguration, by Raphael, but there is still to know. We will understand it in detail in later sections.

6. Location.

Transfiguration by Raphael is on exhibition in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome.

7. Technique and Medium.

The Transiguration influenced the Mannerists who came after the Renaissance. It uses mannerisms and chiaroscuro techniques to portray the spiritual reality of the bible. There is an exceptional treatment of the light, showing the figures in sharp and emotionally invested with theatrical lighting. Only some centuries later, the technique would be repeated by the artist Caravaggio and the seventeenth-century artists. The medium of the painting is oil on the panel.

ArtistRaffaello Sanzio
Year Painted1519-20
GenreReligious Historical Painting
MediumOil on panel
Dimensions405 x 278 cm
PriceNot on sale
Where is it housed?Pinocoteca Vaticana, Rome

Transfiguration (Raphael) | Fast Knowledge

Transfiguration of Christ is a High Renaissance artwork by Raphael portraying two of the episodes of the Gospels in a single frame. The painting dates back to 1519-20 and was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici for the city cathedral. It is the artist’s last painting representing faith.

Now, that you know the painting in brief; let us move toward an in-depth analysis.

In-Depth Description of Transfiguration (Raphael).

About the Artist: Raffaello Sanzio.

Raphael Santi, or Raffaello Sanzio, was born in Urbino on 28 March or 6 April 1483. The date of this certainty is because of the ambiguous tomb inscription by Pietro Bembo, as he declared that Raphael died on the same day of the year he was born, that is, Good Friday, 1520, which was 6 April. But in 1483, the Good Friday was on 28 March. Hence the confusion. Raphael’s father, Giovanni Santi, was the painter who worked for the ruler of Urbino, Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, and the artist’s mother was Elisabetta Gonzaga. Both their parents taught him the basics and rudiments of the art world and painting. Through his father, Raphael came into contact with the court of Urbino, where he expressed his loyalty to it through the artwork, Portrait of Elisabetta Gonzaga in 1502 at nineteen.

Portrait of Elisabetta Gonzaga by Raphael
Portrait of Elisabetta Gonzaga by Raphael | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

The house where the artist was born has remarkable fifteenth-century architecture, which is now located in the street named after him, where the viewers can take a glimpse of the surroundings where he grew up. His early fresco was Madonna and Child. Talking about the city of Urbino, the time when the artist lived there it had external artistic influences from the Italian masters, Netherlandish, and Spanish painters. Likewise, Venetian colorism, which treats light and color in pictures in a particular way spread far and wide. In addition to its outstanding library, Urbino was one of the most significant humanist centers in Italy. The latter would serve as a primary precondition for Raphael to engage intensively with the philosophical, philological, and literary innovations that arose from a reassessment of antiquity.

Raphael's House in Urbino
Raphael’s House in Urbino | Source: Urbino Tour Guide

After learning the basics of art from his father and city, Urbino, Raphael went to Timoteo della Vita in 1495 for formal training, where he had his first contact with humanist and artistic circles. By 1500, he was in Perugia, where Raphael apprenticed under the famous Pietro Vannucci, Perugino. Presumably, Raphael’s father, Giovanni, pressed for his son to be an apprentice there, but at the end of the year, he became an independent painter and completed a significant altar painting (which does not exist now) for the Umbrain city of Citta di Castello. 

By now, you might have understood the early life of Raphael. So, let us jump straight to the historical provenance of Transfiguration (Raphael). 

History and Background of the Painting.

In the previous section, I have already described the surroundings and happenings of the Transfiguration painting. Now, it is the time when we understand the origin of the artwork. The story of Transfiguration by Raphael starts with a competition sponsored by Cardinal Giulio de Medici. As he was appointed the bishop of Narbonne in 1515, he wanted to give two most excellent works to the city cathedral- one showcasing the Transfiguration and the other Raising of Lazarus. The commissions were given to Raphael Sanzio of Urbino and the romanticized Venetian, Sebastiano del Piombo. But wait, this was not the true contest, as both works were supposed to be accepted. I will tell you in a while about this competition. First, you have to know that Sebastiano was the protege of Michelangelo, which is why he helped him by giving him some sketches. And this exchange of sketches automatically created a competitive climate. There is documentation available to prove this point.

Now, there is a lack of documents to help us understand why Cardinal involved the two artists whose work and art styles were so different, and who would definitely oppose each other in the same project. But one thing is sure Cardinal was relying on that rivalry not only to secure the highest quality work from both artists but especially to pressure Raphael indirectly, as he had many commissions at that time which hindered his many projects to complete. For instance, at that time, the Triumph of Bacchus was never completed despite the pressures of the Duke of Ferrara, as Raphael was unable to work on so many commissions at the same time.

Triumph of Bacchus by Raphael
Triumph of Bacchus by Raphael | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Now, the contemporary documents about the artwork were numerous, but all of them were inadequate as they explained the opposing side of the competition, indirectly referring to Raphael’s work in contrast with The Raising of Lazarus. A letter from Sellaio to Michelangelo, dated January 19, 1517, shows that Sebastino started work, on the painting after he got money to buy wood for his support. Hence, we can conclude that the painting commission might date to 1516 or the final months of the year. Sellaio writes,

“Now it seems to me that Raphael is turning the whole world upside-down to prevent him (Sebastiano) from doing it (The Raising of Lazarus) to avoid comparison.”

In the same letter, he also writes that he wishes to hide the painting,

“because I do not want Raphael to see mine until he has presented his.”

Now that you know the entire historical provenance of the Transfiguration painting, let us move to the next section.

Understanding the Meaning of Transfiguration by Raphael.

Raphael unites two episodes from the Gospel, which Matthew (XVII, 1-13, 14-20), Mark (IX, 1-12, 14-29), and Luke (IX, 28-36, 37-43) spoke separately, of which the most significant episode was the Transfiguration. This foreground scene depicts the second episode of The Possessed Boy, just before the encounter between the possessed Boy and his companions and the apostles awaiting Christ’s return. Therefore, Raphael showed two different episodes that had no time break in between.

The two separate episodes are best explained by the Mark version Bible,

And he said to them,

“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

The Transfiguration.

2 After six days, Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. 3 His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. 4 And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

5 Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)

7 Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”

8 Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.

11 And they asked him, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”

12 Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? 13 But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.”

Jesus Heals a Boy Possessed by an Impure Spirit.

14 When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. 15 As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.

16 “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked.

17 A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. 18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”

19 “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”

20 So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.

21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”

“From childhood,” he answered. 22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

23 “‘If you can?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

24 Immediately, the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

25 When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”

26 The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently, and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.

28 After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

29 He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.

Subject Matter and Iconography.

Since the subject matter of Transfiguration (Raphael) is really complex, hence we will understand it in sections. 

1. The Lowermost Part.

In the below section, you see apostles and the relatives surrounding the possessed boy. Now, if you look closer, the boy is on the right side with a man holding onto him, whereas there are other apostles surrounding the foreground in two compact and opposing groups. There is a use of theatrical and excited gestures, where the latter expresses the supplication pointing toward the boy, as the apostles proclaim their piety to Christ.

Tranfiguration Raphael Subject matter Lower portion
Lowermost portion of Transfiguration painting | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Regarding the identification of the individual apostles, one can not judge them through their appearances since there are no characterizing features, which stand them apart. However, the figure on the left sitting on a log with his book in his hand is Andres, St. Peter’s brother. The assumption is recent as it was determined due to his Peter-like appearance, but at the same time, the presence of the book could point out him as an Evangelist, and his age directs him to be Apostle Matthew.

One can also witness the blond youth in a yellow and green dress at the center of the painting as St. Philip, and the figure, who is frowning above him could be Judas. Furthermore, the figure holding the boy might be his father, whereas the young woman pointing to him could be his mother.

One significant thing noted is the close relationship between the two episodes, which are symbolic and have an iconographic level. Raphael, instead of holding to the original text of the bible, interprets the painting freely. For instance, in the original text of the Bible, the Gospels, the Apostles try to exorcise the boy, which they fail for which they raise the question, “Why could not we cast him (the devil) out?” And Jesus replied, “Because of your unbelief.” (Matthew XVII, 19-20) But in the painting, the apostles do not sin for lack of faith as they gesture towards Christ, showcasing that the only way to salvation is faith in Christ.

Hence, somewhere we understand the sole motive of the painting was to showcase faith. To emphasize this even more, the woman kneels in the foreground, acquiring significant importance. And because of her luminosity, she contrasts heavily with the Apostles, which Raphael showed through the chiaroscuro technique. The focal point of the lower segment of the painting is the woman, who shows faith more than anything in Christ and hence kneels, which becomes an instrumental and symbolic iconography in the work.

2. Uppermost Part.

The transfigured Christ rises from Mount Tabor with robes white as light, floating between Moses and Elijah above Mount Tabor, which has the terrified faces of Peter, John, and James. They shield their eyes from the light of the Redeemer, and the cloud behind him. It has been interpreted that the two deacons on the left are Felicissimus and Agapitus, Justus and Postor, or Giuliano and Lorenzo.

Tranfiguration Raphael Subject matter Upper portion
Uppermost region of Transfiguration by Raphael | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

The background of the sky has heavy-dark and lighter clouds with a certain light coming from the back of Christ. The poses of Elijah and Moses remain mannerist with their devotion to the son of God, Christ. Furthermore, the Peter, John, and James postures look at life as if they are covering their eyes because of the extensive light of the Redeemer.

Another iconographic element Raphael used in this work is light to emphasize the symbolic and compositional unity. From the upper left of the Transfiguration painting, there is extremely cool light, flowing throughout it. Christ’s figure and the cloud behind him have auxiliary light. Light enhances the gestures of the figures in an exquisitely theatrical and symbolic manner. Both scenes are rendered in an array of cool other-worldly tones, which contrasts significantly with the warm worldly light of the sunset bathing the distant turreted landscape on the right, emphasizing the transcendental nature of the miracle.

Now, that you have a complete understanding of the subject matter of the painting, let us move to our next overriding section, the formal analysis.

Formally Analysing Transfiguration by Raphael.

1. Line.

The painting has a profusion of different lines, which makes it one-of-a-kind and spiritually divine along with a dynamic stir.

There are two compositional axes, just like indirect circular lines around which the figures of each episode rotate. For instance, in this part, the transfigured Christ is the focal point of the rotation, depicted by the surrounding figures. Similarly, in the lower segment of the painting, the woman is showing the focal point, on which all the other figures rotate. There can be one more symbolism here through the focal point, Christ and the kneeling woman, the connection of faith with God. The entire energy accentuates the circular arrangement of the figures. And there are diagonal lines for a vigorous stir in the form of the gestures of the apostles and relatives. The only transcendental truth and stability in the entire composition is the Christ in a vertical straight line with the woman kneeling on the ground (as a proportion of faith).

Transfiguration Raphael Analysis
Line Analysis of Transfiguration, Red (vertical lines), Green (diagonal lines), Pink (arc)

2. Light and Value.

Raphael uses a deepening effect of chiaroscuro techniques to showcase some of the figures and essential elements in light against a darker background. I have already explained the use of light in terms of symbolism previously.

Again, there is one significant point to note that the entire darker surroundings, consisting of darker mountain stones and a few shadowed Apostles have a contrast through the transcendental light of Christ.

3. Colour.

The colour theme of the painting is the use of peaceful colors like white and blue in the upper segment on the warm surroundings of the enviornment setting. There is a use of diverse colours like yellow, blue, red, and pink through the robes of the figures of the painting.

Opinions and Conclusions.

Transfiguration (Raphael) is a perfect example of a vigorous stir, transcendental beauty, and emotional incubation. In this light of my opinion, I would like to present a few words of Vasari,

“Raphael, by continuously working with his hand achieved ultimate perfection. It is common judgment among artists, that of all his many works, this would be the most celebrated, the most beautiful, and the most divine.”

Raphael painted such a complex work in a harmonious way that every single individual represented in it had the highest quality of the work. The painting is not merely a biblical passage visualization but a culmination of a series of experiences. The artwork is the spiritual testament of the artist, hence the influence of this highly-celebrated painting is the mark of expression, mannerist style, treatment of landscapes like the Carraci brothers, and the exceptional chiaroscuro techniques on figures.


  1. Raphael by Adolf Paul Oppé.
  2. Raphael by Alexander Langkals.
  3. Raphael by Leopold David Ettlinger.
  4. A Masterpiece Close-Up: The Transfiguration by Raphael, Fogg Art Museum.
  5. Twelve Great Paintings; Personal Interpretations by Henry Rurner Bailey.

Frequently Asked Questions.

Why did Raphael create Transfiguration?

Cardinal Giulio de Medici commissioned Raphael to paint Transfiguration after he was appointed the bishop of Narbonne. To create indirect pressure on the artist, he organized a competition between Raphael and Sebastiano del Piombo, who painted Raising of Lazarus. Both of these artworks were presented to the city cathedral.

What is the meaning of the Transfiguration by Raphael?

Raphael used a wonderous symbolism by uniting the two episodes of the Gospels and depicting how faith in Jesus is foremost to revive from any suffering.

What are some facts about the Transfiguration by Raphael?

While Transfiguration was a common subject in the Renaissance, Transfiguration (Raphael) stood apart for its uniqueness of combining the two episodes of the Gospels and is remembered as the greatest depiction ever since. It was also the last painting of the artist, soon after which he passed away of an ongoing disease.

Did Raphael complete the Transfiguration?

Transfiguration by Raphael is an incomplete artwork as the artist passed away soon before it. According to Vasari’s description, the last time Raphael used his brush stroke was to paint Christ’s face in the Transfiguration.


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