Death & Transfiguration

Down the precipitous switchbacks at eighty
the pokerfaced Palestinian cabby aims his Mercedes
while the three of us, ersatz pilgrims, blank-eyed, lurch,
and the droll Franciscan goes on about the Art Deco Church

of the Transfiguration crowning the summit of the Mount.
Up there I’d touched the damp stones of the old Crusader fount,
paced the thick walls, imagined Muslims circling below
on horseback, muleback, then ascending for the final blow.

A decent pasta and a dry wine, thanks to the Fratelli who run
the hostel at the site, followed by an even drier lecture in the sun-
drenched court, then back down to the glinting taxis, ready
to return us now to the same old, feverish, unsteady

world half a mile below. I thought of the old masters, so
many of them who had tried to ignite this scene: Angelico,
di Buoninsegna, Bellini, Perugino, the Frenchman John of Berry,
the Preobrazheniye (Russian, Novgorod, sixteenth century),

and thought at last of what Raphael had wrought. It was to be
his final work, commissioned for some French cathedral, his early
death at thirty-seven intervening. For those who only dream
of some vertiginous, longed-for transfiguration, he would seem

to hold out something magnanimous and large: the benzine brightness
of the Christ, eyes upraised in the atom flash of whiteness,
that body lifted up, cloud-suspended feet above the earth. There,
on either side, with the Tablets and the Book: Moses and Elijah.

Below, his fear-bedazzled friends: Peter, James and John. And though
paint is only paint, we can almost hear the Father’s words again, so
caught up in the vision was the artist: This is my beloved Son,
on whom my favor rests. Listen to him
. Meanwhile, someone

in the lower half of the picture is gesturing toward the transfigured
Christ. He is part of the curious and anxious crowd
that surrounds the epileptic youth, whose eyes, like Christ’s, are wide,
but wide with seizure like some frenzied Sibyl’s: the great divide

that separates him from the others, as if he understood the same strange
thing Raphael came to see as he composed this scene: that the deranged
youth has somehow come upon a mystery. Like us, he has been bound
round with fear, and only the One descending as he comes can sound

those depths of cosmic light and dark, in which the young man
writhes honeystuck in death, though he will—the gospel says—be raised again
to health and to his father, in this prologue to the resurrection.
That’s it, then, it would seem: first the old fears descending, then dejection

and the dunning sameness in the daily going round and round of things.
Then a light like ten thousand suns that flames the brain and brings
another kind of death with it, and then—once more— the daily round
again. But changed now by what the blind beseeching eye has found.

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