In the Transfiguration, Raphael tells a story of revelation, faith, and healing. He shows how the moment of Revelation on Mount Tabor sheds light on the scene below, the healing of a boy with a demon. It’s the story in the Gospel immediately following the Transfiguration of Jesus. Heaven sheds its light below as Christ, embraced by the bright cloud and flanked by Moses and Elijah, is the apex of the scene. Below we see the apostles and even further down we see others gathered to view a possessed boy and his family. From top to bottom, the colors shift from a cool, heavenly glow to warmer, earthly tones.
Raphael shows us the disciples as they meet the desperate family. The boy’s face contorts with suffering. His body is torn, one arm up and one arm down, as if he’s being pulled towards both Heaven and Hell. Raphael depicts the family as a focused unit. Their intensity and upward hands signal their united act of faith. Opposite them, the disciples are overwhelmed by the challenge—their faces and bodies pointing every which way, showing their disarray.
Between the disciples and the family, Raphael places a unique female figure. Christ dominates the painting, yes, but this woman is second in visual importance. She is central to the boy’s narrative—she is part of the scene but she is not a character in it. Her cool and bright coloring, more like the divine action above, sets her apart. She is a symbol that invites us into deeper meaning.
In Raphael’s work, the bodies profoundly speak to us. This woman’s body is turned, twisted in a serpentine form that simultaneously engages the disciples, the family, and us, the audience. In her twist is the juxtaposition of one direction meeting another; in her turn is a change of direction, a new path.
She is faith, responding to the revelation of God above. She brings to the disciples the key ingredient missing from their work. She bridges the two stories.
Her turned and twisted body also brings to mind conversion, the turning of mind and heart. She echoes the divine words from above: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” With faith and grace, our hearts may turn as well.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans.
In Finding God, Grade 7, teachers and catechists have the option to play a recorded scripture story about the Transfiguration. Click here for the full script, also found in the Teacher Edition on page T-335. Teachers and catechists can print out the PDF for young people to follow along. When the recording is finished, discuss with young people how the recording and Raphael’s painting tell the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration in different ways.