Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Transfiguration

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguartion, which has always carried a special significance for me since I did my master's thesis on the painting above. It is Giovanni Bellini's Transfiguration of Christ in the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, one of 3 paintings Bellini is known to have made of this subject, and one of the 2 that survive intact.
An aspect of this picture that has always fascinated me (and has not been written about to my knowledge) is the Jewish content of this picture. Both Moses and Elijah cover their heads in Christ's presence after Jewish custom. Moses appears to be wearing a talith complete with an embroidered atara. Both are holding scrolls with inscriptions in Hebrew. I am not Hebrew literate, nor have I been able to find legible reproductions of that detail (I have not seen the original painting either) in order to determine if the Hebrew is real, or if Bellini (like a lot of artists at the time) faked his way through an alien language. If it is real, then what does it say? To whom was it intended to speak?
In my thesis from a quarter century ago, I argued that the work was a private commission reflecting the tastes and thoughts of a particular patron, though unknown. I've changed my mind since then. Usually Jewish content in a Renaissance picture is antisemitic; the triumph of the Church over the Synagogue, etc. That does not seem to be the case here. I now think that this might have been an altarpiece made for a congregation of Jewish converts. The Transfiguration would be a perfect subject for just such a group.
Bellini died in 1516, the year the Jews were officially segregated into a ghetto in Venice. This painting was made at least 10 years before that date. Venice always had a very large and important Jewish community with a couple of major Jewish publishing firms. Even after the creation of the Ghetto, Venice's Jewish population remained very large and important, and enjoyed a measure of protection from the Venetian Republic that counted for a lot in the days of Reformation and Counter-Reformation. There were indeed serious efforts by the Republic to evangelize its Jews after the institution of the Ghetto which are well known. There must have been similar, though less ambitious, efforts to do the same in Bellini's lifetime. Is it possible that this was made for a small congregation of just such converts?


FranIAm said...

This is a good way to start the day, pondering this.

Lovely art and insight... as always.

Davis said...

Ah, Bellini, Bellini!

Grandmère Mimi said...

Professor Counterlight, do you realize what a splendid service you provide to your readers? It's a wonderful painting. Thanks for the lesson.

Counterlight said...

Thanks Mimi.

I'm about to turn Gay Studies professor and give everyone a little course in the history of gay lib.
I already started about 2 posts below.

BillyD said...

Do you happen to have a close-up of the Hebrew texts?

Counterlight said...

No I don't, and I'd love to find one, along with someone who can read Hebrew.

kishnevi said...

Moses is not wearing a tallit. If Bellini knew enough about tallisim to know about the atara, then he would also know that it was worn over the shoulder and over the other garments, not tucked under them to seem like a hood. (Unless the Venetian community had a distinctive custom on the matter which I am not aware of.) Also, he would have probably shown some of the ritual fringes which are the essential part of the tallit.

As a Jew, nothing beyond the Hebrew script strikes me as being Jewish oriented. (And if you hadn't commented on the fact that the writing was in Hebrew, I would not have realized it was Hebrew. The writing is completely illegible on my screen.) Bellini presumably had enough contacts to get whatever he wanted written out for him to copy in detail, and didn't need to fake the Hebrew. (Was this the Bellini who went to Istanbul and painted the Sultan's portrait? Or was that another member of the family?) My guess is that they will turn out to be Biblical verses with particular reference to Moses and Elijah on the one hand, and Jesus as the prophecied Messiah on the other hand.

Several Italian cities had special "Houses of Conversion" which were set up to evangelize Jews and help any who did convert with food, clothing and housing for a year or more after conversion (given that a convert would usually be cut off from his family and the Jewish community because of his conversion), and I am fairly sure Venice had one. That would be the closest thing to an actual congregation of Jewish converts. However, the number of converts was usually not very large, and there are known cases of Jewish con artists who would arrive in a city, pretend interest and eventually go through the formalities of conversion, take as much of the free food, clothing, and housing as they could get before moving on to another city and repeat the process--we know about them because the Inquisition caught up with at least some of them, Even the legitimate converts were usually from the poorer sections of the Jewish community, so it's doubtful that they would have been able to commission a painting. Also, the number of converts was fairly low in most years. (Father Pietro writing to his superiors in Rome: I am pleased to say that this year our efforts met with extraordinary success. We have been able to lead an unusual number of Jews to the light of the gospel in the last twelve months--no less than four, and a fifth one may well finally renounce his error sometime next month!) Perhaps the clergy who ran the conversion centers, or (variation on your original idea) a wealthy Jewish convert.

Counterlight said...

Thank you Kishnevi, that was very informative.

The Bellini who went off to Constantinople to work for Sultan Mehmet II was Giovanni Bellini's older brother, Gentile.

You are probably right about the small size and poverty of a congregation of Jewish converts. Bellini's work did not come cheap, and if this was indeed painted for such a congregation, it would have to be paid for by a benevolent patron, and a very rich one.
I like your idea that this painting could have been made for a wealthy Jewish convert, or for a group of clergy tasked with converting Jews.

Again, you are right about the talith, but that garment that Moses wears is striking. Also, I can't think of any other pictures of the Transfiguration where the prophets cover their heads like this.

A for the Hebrew inscription, maybe that would clear some things up, and maybe not. It is a small detail in the painting, and I'm usually suspicious of interpretations that stand or fall on very small obscure details. If the detail is small and obscure, that's usually a sign that it wasn't that significant to artist or patron.
Still, those pieces of paper are there in each prophet's hand, and to my eye, look like they were meant to be read. It would be very disappointing if the inscriptions were illegible in the original (these things sometimes fade or wear off over time).