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Raphael - The Transfiguration

( Originally Published 1902 )



The Glory of the Transfigured Life

THE two greatest paintings on the earth are the work of Raphael. One is at Dresden, and shows the infant Jesus with preternatural eyes looking into the future, of which He was to be so large a part. By common consent the room in the gallery in the little Saxon city where hangs the Sistine Madonna is the holiest shrine in the world of art. Hardly less beautiful, and by many regarded as still more beautiful, is the " Transfiguration" by the same immortal painter. It now hangs in the Gallery of the Vatican, although it was intended for the Cathedral of Narbonne. On Good-Friday, 1520, the artist, while the colors of this picture were still wet, entered upon his own transfigured life. Still incomplete, the painting was hung over the couch in his studio while he was lying in state, and when his body was taken for its burial the picture was carried by its side.

"And when all beheld
Him where he lay, how changed from yesterday—
Him in that hour cut off, and at his head
His last great work ; when entering in they looked
Now on the dead, then on that masterpiece—
Now on his face lifeless and colorless,
Then on those forms divine that lived and breathed,
And would live on for ages—all were moved,
And sighs burst forth and loudest lamentations."

This picture contains Raphael's last message, and a noble message it is. Can I describe the work to my readers ? Only in the most unsatisfactory way. It is divided into two parts. On a mountain-top are Jesus and His visitors from the world of spirits, Moses and Elijah. They appear against a luminous cloud above the disciples, Peter, James, and John, who are shielding their eyes from the radiance. The child in the arms of the Madonna seems to be looking into the earthly future ; but the Jesus of the " Transfiguration" is gazing with undimmed eyes into the splendors of heaven.

On the plain below, a motley company of people is gathered around a maniac boy. All is confusion. In the midst of the crowd two persons, probably disciples, are pointing toward the mountain, as if to indicate that the true relief for all human ills is to be sought in that supernal sphere. Thus in one frame, as never before or since, are grouped, so that they can be seen together, the mystery and the pain of existence on the earth and the brightness and the hope of the transfigured life. We shall miss the meaning of the work if we forget that those on the mountain had been in the valley, that Elijah had been so discouraged that he wanted to die, that Moses had known persecution and been forbidden entrance to the land he had long sought, and that even into the midst of that luminous cloud came the shadow of the approaching cross. The same humanity was on the mountain and on the plain. The difference between the two types of being was not so much in the men as in the quality of their life. Those around the maniac boy show life as it is ; those on the height show life as it will be when transfigured. The dying message of Raphael, what might be called his Swan Song, if it were not for mixing metaphors, is contained in the phrase—" The Glory of the Trans-figured Life."

The greatness and beauty of the earth are visible only to those who reach the heights. In the valley in which you were born it is easy to imagine that the world is small, and that there is nothing better than what you see and hear. But go out from between the hills and you shall find plains and cities, oceans and mountains ; and the God of the larger world will be a larger Deity than you have known before. Then climb to the tops of the mountains, and you will see other mountains, rivers, plains, populous communities spread out like a panorama, even the very clouds which seemed to touch the blue of the sky are beneath your feet, while above is the clear azure of the firmament. The world has expanded and grown beautiful as you have risen, and yet the landscape and the sky are not different from what they were before; the difference is all subjective. The glory of the earth becomes visible only to those who rise to the lofty altitudes. It, was necessary for Peter, James, and John to rise to the spiritual heights before they could discern truths which were essential to their growth, but which on the lower levels were beyond their sight. Jesus on the mountain was the same being as when He walked with them by the lake. If I understand the significance of the Transfiguration it is in the fact that Moses and Elijah, who had been called dead for centuries, were there shown to be actually alive, and interested in human affairs. At ordinary times the disciples were too dull of sight to discern their presence, but this was an hour of supreme illumination in which the realities of the spirit became visible to them.

Such visions have always been for the few. Only Elisha saw the chariots and the horses in the heavens, and only his master, Elijah, heard the still small voice in the wilderness. Galileo, and he alone, saw that the earth moved; only Sir Isaac Newton was able to detect in the falling of an apple the working of a cosmic law ; only James Watt had vision enough to see that there was a power in steam which might be made the minister of man ; Galahad alone of all the Knights of the Round Table saw The Holy Grail. Only three disciples were on the mountain with Jesus. The few seers catch glimpses of truths which become commonplaces to the many, centuries later.

Shall we say that all could climb the heights if they would ? I hardly dare to go so far, for I remember these words—" Jesus taketh with Him Peter and James and John." That word " taketh " indicates that there was a selection. The others were not invited. Some better thing may have been in store for them ; we know not, but this we do know—to those fitted for the vision it came. If we are blind and the glory and beauty of truth are hidden from us, we may well ask whether the fault is not our own. Most who are willing to exert themselves may climb to the heights, and when once there they will behold the space and splendor of the world. If we are not selected for the visions, it is probably because, deep down in our hearts we do not desire them.

Live down in the mists and fogs with pains and doubts and you will think that there is nothing better ; refuse to believe that fog and doubt are all there is and climb to the spiritual heights, and rare visions of God, duty, and privilege will break in upon your minds and thrill your hearts.

And many a time they come,
Until this earth he walks on seems not earth,
This light that strikes his eyeball is not light,
This air that smites his forehead is not air
But vision.
In moments when he feels he cannot die."

The beauty of the Transfigured Life is finely illustrated in this picture and in the event which it portrays. "His garments became glistering, exceeding white." This was revelation by vision. There was probably no change even in the outward appearance of Jesus. The change was in those who looked upon Him. Their sight was stimulated so that they saw Him in the glory and beauty of His daily service. If their eyes had been keen enough they would have seen the shining of His character when He healed the maniac in Gadara, and taught the parable of the Sower. For a brief hour those disciples were given a sight of the transforming quality of goodness. When Moses came down from the Mount his face was so radiant that it startled those who saw him; when Stephen was about to suffer martyrdom his face shone like the face of an angel. It was said of the saints in heaven that their robes had been washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb. I know not what that means if it is not that, from following Jesus in His sacrifice for others, they had become so like Him that some-thing of His moral perfection shone even in the whiteness of their clothing.

The woman who had seen the Holy Grail and who was the friend and guide of Sir Galahad is thus described by Tennyson :

" And when she came to speak, behold her eyes
Beyond my knowing of them, beautiful,
Beyond all knowing of them, wonderful,
Beautiful in the light of holiness."

There is a deep meaning in the phrase, "The beauty of holiness." That is the only beauty which never fades. There are no dimness in its eyes, and no wrinkles in its cheeks. The light on its face grows fairer with the years. The stature of a strong man sometimes falters, and the freshness on a woman's features withers like the bloom of fruit, but the beauty of holiness endureth forever. This is a great revelation.

The good are beautiful, and he only is worthy of that noble name who keeps his heart from deceit and his lips from speaking guile, who is pure in thought and word, and brave in deed; whose motive is love and who abhors hate ; who is not anxious for applause but eager to be genuine and true; in short he who has the spirit of Christ has goodness, and there is no beauty to be compared with that.

We need not go to our Bibles, or search in other lands or times than our own for illustrations of the beauty of the transfigured life.

A stalwart man, as he stood by an open grave in which his wife was buried said : "Well, I thank God that she was given to me so long." We heard the words, and wondered not more at them than at the tone in which they were spoken and the smile by which they were attended. At that moment there was revealed the beauty of the trans-figured life. A man whose last dollar had taken wings said : "Well, at least I have left the power to say, Praise God for His goodness." In that exclamation was heard the voice of the transfigured life.

Why do the women in the social settlements refuse all protection from the police, as they go through the criminal quarters of our cities? Because even the vilest recognize and revere the beauty of the good life. Why did the convicts at Sing Sing Prison, on a certain day not so many years ago, crowd their windows and cheer as an engine sped by on the railroad? There was nothing unusual on that engine except a little woman waving a handkerchief toward the grim walls. In that woman those desolate and often deserted men had seen the beauty of the unselfish life, and their cheer was the only expression they could give to their admiration. Nobility of mind is self-evidencing. It makes itself known even in figure and features. Not untruly have authors and artists represented it as shining from the figure. Fra Angelico's saints may seem rather monotonously sentimental, but, in one respect, they are true to experience—They all have radiant faces. Those whose spirits are lofty and pure always irradiate light, if I may so speak, even from the words which they utter.

This picture suggests the inquiry—Why were the disciples given that vision? 'We do not need to go far for our answer. In order that when Jesus should die they might believe in the resurrection from the dead. But what would most vividly impress that truth 2 Nothing so clearly as the vision given to them. Side by side with the Master appeared two of the great heroes of the Hebrew race, Moses and Elijah, as intensely alive as the other witnesses of that extraordinary spectacle. That incident seems to teach that those whose vision is keen enough may know that the ones whom we call dead are in no true sense dead. They are alive; they can be recognized; they have their work to do as we have ours. Moses and Elijah were the companions of the Christ in at least one part of His ministry, and if they were His companions who can tell who may not be our companions? I do not dogmatize. I am only trying to interpret an ancient vision and an immortal picture. Both represent the disciples on the heights as seeing men whom they supposed had been dead for centuries. Do not all to-day who are on the heights have similar visions? I do not know, but of one thing I am sure; many of the saintliest souls who have ever lived have believed that they have had such visions, and by them have been made strong to suffer and to serve. We must not be too positive, and we are not when we say that there is nothing unreasonable in such a faith. Has anyone ever proved immortality impossible ? Thousands have been confident that they have had valid evidence that death does not end all. That faith has always been an inspiration toward goodness ; it has made men brave, patient, eager to be worthy of the ones who have gone on before. The most that can be said by those who doubt is that no eye has yet seen a spirit. That is true, and no eye has seen gravitation, or electricity, or faith, or love. That which alone completes our human life and saves it from being a farce, which always ennobles, which gives a motive for goodness, and a worthy theatre for the powers with which we are endowed is presumptively true. To think otherwise would be unreasonable for a rational being. Until it can be demonstrated that death is a finality, it is wise and sane to believe in what gives our life all its bloom and beauty, in what makes it a joy to live, in what always works toward blessing for the individual and the race. I am sure Browning was right—" What began best can't end worst."

We are in harmony not only with universal human longings, but also with the last word of science, and with the strongest thinkers of all the ages, when we interpret the vision on the Mount as a revelation of the fact that life never ends but only changes its form, and that Moses and Elijah were not creations of excited imaginations but actually present and surely visible. If we had eyes clear enough, possibly, we might see More spirits than bodies on the streets along which we walk and thronging the sanctuaries in which we worship. It is no more incredible to think that there are spirits in the air around us, who may whisper to us, than that there are forces which, without visible media, may carry our thoughts around the world. I found a letter the other day from one who is very dear to me—I purposely use the present tense. The voice was hushed years, years ago, and yet in that letter were words which breathed love, devotion, inspiration. They had not lost their power. Was the heart that prompted that letter less enduring than the ink 2 Possibly, but I do not believe it. If the perfume of a rose never dies, but becomes a part of the universal fragrance, why should I imagine that he who was so dear to me has actually ceased to exist? The colors of Raphael's picture are as luminous now as nearly four hundred years ago. Was Raphael less en-during than the paint he used ? The lines of Aldrich to the memory of his friend Edward Rowland Sill suggest a great truth :

"I held his letter in my hand,
And even while I read,
The lightning flashed across the land
The word that he was dead.

How strange it seemed ! His living voice
Was speaking from the page
Those courteous phrases, tersely choice,
Light-hearted, witty, sage.

I wondered what it was that died !
The man himself was here,
His modesty, his scholar's pride,
His soul serene and clear.

" These neither death nor time shall dim :
Still this sad thing must be
Henceforth I may not speak to him,
Though he can speak to me."

The presence of Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration was intended to teach that, centuries after their death, those heroes of Israel were alive, active, and interested in the same great subjects as when they were on the earth.

Raphael discerned the spiritual significance of this event and gave it immortal expression—Death is not an end but a change.

The spirit that is pure and loving, harmonious with itself and with other spirits, always grows toward ampler being. The good life of necessity is immortal.

But even for Jesus the hours on the mountain-top were few. The maniac in the valley was calling for Him. He had still more work to do for men in the flesh. Gethsemane and Calvary were hard by Olivet. Perfect vision is not for this world. We walk by faith, not by sight. " And there came a cloud overshadowing them, and a voice from out the cloud said, ` This is my beloved Son, hear ye Him." For the disciples there yet remained the duty of service and the discipline of suffering. None may hope for escape from that school. What shall we do when we cannot climb the mountains, and when vision is denied? At least we may listen to our Master—" Hear ye Him." We may give to His message the test of life. We may live on the presumption that He spoke truly when He said : " Whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die." Surely it is better to hope than to despair, to love than to hate, to believe in our Father than in a universe without a heart; it is better to believe in life than in death, in endless growth than in utter annihilation.

Until the day of vision dawns we will live as if His words were true. If at the end we find that we have been spending our days in a dream--at, least it will have been a beautiful dream, and there will be no sorrow at the awaking.

These are some of the lessons which have been impressed upon us as we have studied Raphael's interpretation of the Transfigured Life, and meditated on the words of Him who said—" I was dead, but behold I am alive forevermore."



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