Wednesday, August 6, 2008
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?
Posted by Counterlight at Wednesday, August 06, 2008