Bellini’s Tranfiguration in Naples

March 12th 2022

 “The Transfiguration”, 1478/79 (oil on panel) by Giovanni Bellini (c.1430-1516); 115×154 cm; Museo e Gallerie Nazionali di Capodimonte, Naples. 


Christ stands before us dressed in white garments which are as bright as the band of white clouds on the horizon behind him, but are hardly the “dazzling white” to which the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke attest.  Here his garments are not a source of light but reflect the same mysterious light which also falls on Moses, Elijah, Peter, James and John.  In fact Christ’s raised left hand casts a shadow across his chest.  But the viewer is left in no doubt that these three figures do appear “in glory”.  It is the combined effect of several subtle differences between the two groups.  The Apostles are much smaller in stature.  Christ, Moses and the Elijah stand upright, but the Apostles sit or kneel and are clothed in rather dull colours, which almost merge with the green grass.  With careful symmetry Moses and Elijah face reverently towards Christ, who in turn looks out at the viewer.  The three crouched Apostles each face in different directions.  They seem to be confused.   What unites them is that they are listening.  This is surely the moment when the voice from heaven speaks;  “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him” (Lk 9:35).  Although the three Gospels attest to a cloud having descended at this point, the only clouds in Bellini’s painting are those in sky.  The darker clouds suggest that soon it may rain as it must often have done in such a green landscape. The feet of all six figures touch the same grassy knoll, and  it would not hard to imagine that the grass is wet.  The whole landscape wears an autumnal dress.  By this stage in his career, Bellini intended his landscapes to help the viewer contemplate the mystery he depicted.  For example, two trees stand out in the background. The one on the left is bare but the one on the right is in leaf suggesting the death and resurrection of Christ.  In the foreground, the rustic fence is so close that the viewer could almost touch it. It lines the path which rises sharply from left to right and does not take you unto the grassy knoll but onwards to Jerusalem through a landscape of autumn rains.   I am reminded the beautiful psalm of pilgrimage,  “As they go through the bitter valley, they make it a place of springs, the autumn rains cover it with blessings,  they walk with every growing strength,  they will see the God of gods in Sion” (Ps 84:6-7).  

Bellini’s Tranfiguration in Naples

Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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