Like a master storyteller, the painting leads your spirit through an emotional roller coaster, as it recounts the well-known Biblical episode.
With Peter, James, and John, the Lord went up the mountain to pray and, “while he was praying, his face changed in appearance” and “his face shone like the sun” (Lk 9; Mt 17). The vision of Christ’s divinity proves too much for the three “eyewitnesses of his majesty” to bear (2 Pt 1:16), and they shield their eyes from so much glory.
When they come down the mountain, they encounter a crowd and, in particular, a boy possessed by an evil spirit in the helpless arms of his distraught father. He had asked Jesus’ apostles to cast it out—the Gospels tell us—but they were unable.
Scanning the canvas, we immediately perceive a stark contrast between the upper scene, in which a sense of peace and plenitude prevails, and the lower one, where fright and frenzy anguish the soul.
While the Transfiguration scene above breathes easily under an open sky, the lower one is cluttered with a dizzying maze of gesticulating figures: outstretched legs, raised arms, pointing fingers. Our eyes zigzag through the composition below, looking for a focal point to settle upon, but in vain. Eventually, they land on a mysterious woman, kneeling inexplicably before the sole empty space, right in the middle of the mayhem. What is that all about?
Perusing the pages of Scripture provides little help. Matthew, Mark, and Luke make no mention of a woman. So who is this enigmatic character, and what is she doing trespassing on sacred turf?
Poetic license, Rafael would surely say. With an artistic stroke, he makes a stunning theological point. While everyone else is fraught with the worry provoked by the boys’ diabolic seizure (check out his crossed eyes!), only the woman knows peace. Her humble posture tells us that she is in the presence of holiness. She is the Church, the bride of Christ (cf. Eph. 5:27-32). But what does she see that those by her side miss?
To solve the riddle, we need to realize that Rafael gives us two paintings for the price of one here. Like frames in a comic strip, we could divide the two Gospel episodes by drawing a horizontal line halfway through the painting. Now, with your mind’s eye, slide the top half down over the bottom half. What fills the empty space below?
Jesus, of course! The Bride sees her Bridegroom (Jn 3:29) standing—invisibly—in the middle of the madness.
Can’t you hear Rafael? “Christ is the solution to our broken world...if only we would recognize him!” It’s the Renaissance man’s pictorial definition of faith, the virtue by which we see the unseen. Faith acknowledges Jesus’ invisible presence—and not just on the mountain when we’re in that “sweet spot” with God, but even when life’s blows have brought us to the brink of despair.
Isn’t this precisely our own experience? We believe in God and have even known such moments of consolation and intimacy in which we could have exclaimed almost as ecstatically as St. Peter, “Lord, it sure is good that we are here…” (Before so much glory, these words fall pathetically short, don’t you think?)
But, alas, we eventually must come down the mountain into the valley, where our daily problems are ready to assail us. Our trust in the Lord—once so passionate—evaporates like dew in the morning sun.
If we are to “fight the good fight” in the valley, we need the mountain. The bounty from our communion with God spills over from the silence and seclusion of our spiritual lives, allowing us to persevere through the valley of our daily struggles.
So faith isn’t a sugar-coating, an extraneous additive masking an otherwise bland, unsavory world. The splendor, the romance, is real, but we will only see it, if we see as God sees. Without faith, we are blind to the deepest Truth.
Immediately following the moment of tension, the short and sweet solution to our spiritual ailment is revealed in the father’s humble prayer: “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24)
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