Sunday, November 29, 2009

Paintings I Like, pt. 40

Raphael Sanzio, "The Transfiguration," 1516-1520. Oil on panel, 159" x 109."

This was by far my favorite painting in the Vatican Pinacoteca, with Caravaggio's deposition a close second - the Vatican frescoes (particularly the Sistine Chapel), sculptures, and architecture tended to leave their oil paintings behind just a bit. The thing that really struck me about this picture was the way Raphael used waving arms and pointing fingers to direct the eye around. If you described it to someone over the phone, it would sound like such a silly, prosaic device, but it works so brilliantly. It was also quite large for a something that wasn't painted on a wall - in those days portable pictures were generally of a much more modest size.

It's been many years since I've stood in front of the picture, but I've just been reading Nietszche's "Birth of Tragedy," his early meditation on art, and he addresses the painting in terms of his central argument in the book: that great art must balance two seemingly opposite poles which he describes as "Apollonian" and "Dionysisan." The Apollonian, in Nietszche's view, is the idealized, platonic, beautiful, rational, and ultimately objective. The Dionysian is the human, particular, frenzied, passionate, subjective view. Nietszche's contention that these two seemingly opposite characteristics must be made to coexist is a strong reference to Hegel's notion of the dialectic.

In the Raphael, Nietszche says that the top half, depicting the floating, transfigured Christ, represents the Apollonian, and the bottom half, in which the apostles try unsuccessfully to exorcise the devil from a young boy, represents the madness of Dionysus:

"In the lower half of his Transfiguration, through the figures of the possessed boy, the despairing bearers, the helpless, terrified disciples, we see a reflection of original pain, the sole ground of being: "illusion" here is a reflection of eternal contradiction, begetter of all things. From this illusion there rises, like the fragrance of ambrosia, a new illusory world, invisible to those enmeshed in the first: a radiant vision of pure delight, a rapt seeing through wide-open eyes. Here we have, in a great symbol of art, both the fair world of Apollo and its substratum, the terrible wisdom of Silenus, and we can comprehend intuitively how they mutually require one another."