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The Transfiguration

The Transfiguration

Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516). Museo e Gallerie Nazionale di Capodimonte – Naples.

Giovanni Bellini was a Venetian. He was born in 1430 in a family of painters. His father was Jacopo Bellini, a great early Venetian master of International Gothic painting. His brother, Gentile Bellini, was also a painter and his sister Nicolasina married Andrea Mantegna, who was the major master painter of Padua. Giovanni Bellini was the artist of light, of pure crystalline colours, of forms and lines in the crisp Florentine style. He added vivid expressions of moods, though usually gentle and soft, never overly sentimental. He held the respectful distance between viewer, artist and subject, which epitomise an aristocratic character of soul. His paintings are very dignified. The viewer is always kept at a distance from the inner drama of the image. The image stays a private work of beauty and Bellini was reluctant to break into the intimacy of his proper scenes. He was the ideal painter for the majesty of Jesus’ Transfiguration.

Matthew tells the strange scene of the Transfiguration, so do Mark and Luke. We take the story of Matthew, which must be one of the earliest.

Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There in their presence he was transfigured: his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as dazzling as light. And suddenly, Moses and Elijah appeared to them; they were walking with him. Then, Peter said to Jesus, “Lord,” he said, “it is wonderful for us to be here; if you want me to, I will make three shelters here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when suddenly a bright cloud covered them with shadow, and suddenly from the cloud there came a voice, which said, “This is my son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favour. Listen to him.” When they heard this, the disciples fell on their faces, overcome with fear. But Jesus came up and touched them, saying, “Stand up, do not be afraid.” And when they raised their eyes they saw no one but Jesus. As they came down from the mountain Jesus gave them this order, “tell no one about this vision until the Son of man has risen from the dead.” G38

The last line may explain why John does not talk about the Transfiguration: he was a witness, but Jesus asked him explicitly not to tell about the vision. John may have kept to the promise even until after the Resurrection.

In Giovanni Bellini’s ‘Transfiguration’ a rift separates viewer and scene. Here is the distance we have talked of in the painter’s character. The view is held from a bridge or path that runs on the other side of the rift so that the viewer is only allowed a distant view of the opposite landscape. This underscores the mystery of the Transfiguration scene. Two worlds are represented. We see the world of Jesus and the heavens on one side. Our earthly world on the other must remain separate.

Jesus is dressed in a white, now slightly grey robe, which is splendidly drawn in almost translucent colours. The folds of the robes of all the figures are painted in sophisticated detail, as was known by Giovanni from the International Gothic style of his father. These are also Mantegna’s fluid but clear lines. Moses and Elijah are standing near Jesus. They are painted as patriarchs with long white beards, long flowing white hair and both are dressed in light red cloaks. They are the wise men that dwell near to God. They are depicted in full geometrical symmetry, which continues in the two trees near the figures of the prophets. Jesus holds his arms open; Elijah holds one outstretched arm in a movement that continues to Moses who holds his hand to his heart. These two gestures link the prophets together around Jesus.

The apostle Peter lies in the middle, dark James is on the left and his younger brother John is on the right. They have thrown their faces to the earth. Surprise and fear show in the gesture of escape of James. In these figures also is strong symmetry, broken only by the tree trunk on the left. The trunk serves a purpose. The cut tree is a symbol of life without Jesus and of the punishment that awaits the sinners. In the background is a wonderful landscape. The figures of Jesus, Moses and Elijah are projected against this landscape. They tower above it, as the view comes from beneath. The landscape suits the holy men. It is painted cool and crisp, controlled and clearly delineated. The landscape is a neutral setting that at first sight fits the respectful mood of the picture.

Giovanni Bellini was an early master of light. Very bright light is all-pervasive in this picture, as suits the subject. The miracle story tells of this light that radiated out of Jesus, but in this picture the hard light is everywhere. Yet, long before the great Italian masters of light and shadow of the seventeenth century, Giovanni Bellini uses the subtle play of contrasts. The light comes from the left. The background landscape on the right is brightly lit. On that side the aspects of architecture, roads, meadows and especially the far, grey hills, are bright. On the left, however, the slopes remain dark. We feel that here on another attitude and in the darkness glooms a high citadel castle. We discover here the contrast between life and death. It is not a coincidence that the tree on the dark left side seems dead and is leafless, remains small and sunk in the earth, whereas the tree on the full bright right has luxurious foliage and grows into the skies. Giovanni Bellini has created clarity of space and he also included rich symbolic meaning. On the dark left we find peasants toiling the soil. On the right are monks, the church, maybe an abbey, in an idealised architecture. Jesus, Moses and Elijah are standing on a mount, a symbol of the scene that actually happened in the mountains.

Giovanni Bellini’s ‘Transfiguration’ is one of the greatest masterpieces of the late fifteenth century of painting in Venice. Bellini created space, dignity, strong symmetrical composition and subtle symbolic meaning in his picture. Most important is the focus on Jesus as the godly redeemer, who is the light of the world. Bellini expressed his profound religious feelings. A man who was not profoundly devote could not have imagined a Transfiguration with such care of detail and meaning, such respectful love and glory of vision.

The Transfiguration is a rare event in the Gospels because it is a revelation of the godly nature of Jesus. All through the life of Jesus doubt remained on this aspect of his person. Jesus himself nurtured the doubt, which could only be solved by the mystery of faith, the belief in a double nature that was not proved by the means by which humans prove physical truths. Hence also the parables: Jesus did not reveal the meaning of the parables to the listeners but only explained them to his disciples. For to see what could not be seen was the faith Jesus needed and the faith God claimed. The Transfiguration was a miracle, but more than the miracles it was the one event that would have been – if performed in public - the ultimate proof of Jesus’ godly nature. The scene had to remain private and the disciples were not allowed to talk about it until Jesus’ death in order to keep the secret and the doubt alive. Blind faith was needed; physical proof was too easy for God. Giovanni Bellini grasped these meanings and therefore increased the distance and kept his symbols subtle.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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