The epileptic boy in Rafael’s Transfiguration Volume 20, supplement 2, Numéro spécial : Epilepsie et Renaissance


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Université François Rabelais de Tours, Centre d’Études Supérieures de la Renaissance, CNRS–UMR 6576

In his famous Transfiguration commissionned by Cardinal Giulio de’Medici as an altarpiece for the cathedral of Narbonne, Raphael narrates two events which according to biblical sources have happened at the same moment in two different places. While in the upper part Christ is being transfigured, in the lower part nine of his apostles are trying to cure an epileptic boy but fail to do so. As great specialists of epilepsy have noticed, the epileptic seizure is so accurately and exactly depicted that it must have been observed and drawn from reality. Art historians must then explain why the painter has given such an exceptionnaly exact description of the disease whereas altarpieces have primarily devotionnal and liturgical functions. Raphael probably intended to give an image as striking as possible of the « illness » of the Church and to suggest that only faith, as symbolized by two little figures in the upper left of the painting, would succeed in curing this « illness ».