The Dionysian in Christian art

Raphael - Transfiguration
In The Birth of Tragedy, one of Nietzsche’s most concrete illustrations of Appolinian art is Raphael’s Transfiguration (pictured above):

In a symbolic painting, Raphael, himself one of these immortal “naive” ones, has represented for us this demotion of appearance to the level of mere appearance, the primitive process of the naive artist and of Apollinian culture. In his Transfiguration the lower half of the picture, with the possessed boy, the despairing bearers, the bewildered, terrified disciples, shows us the reflection of suffering, primal and eternal, the sole ground of the world: the “mere appearance” here is the reflection of eternal contradition, the father of things. From this mere appearance arises, like ambrosial vapor, a new visionary world of mere appearances, invisible to those wrapped in the first appearance–a radiant floating in purest bliss, a serene contemplation beaming from wide-open eyes. Here was have presented, in the most sublime artistic symbolism, that Apollinian world of beauty and its substratum, the terrible wisdom of Silenus; and intuitively we comprehend their necessary interdependence.

It is a truly ingenious artistic decision to include the Transfiguration and the fumbling disciples, whom Jesus finds trying and failing to drive out the demon, in the same frame. I wonder if Nietzsche is missing something here, though — namely, the fact that the composition of the top half of the painting so clearly echoes the crucifixion. Jesus’s hands and feet are positioned in such a way as to suggest that they have been purposefully moved away from the posture of crucifixion, and indeed, the crucifixion would not be out of place in the world of the lower half of the painting. Perhaps Nietzsche’s point is actually strengthened if we emphasize the crucified figure implicitly “behind” the glorified Christ — in fact, it’s difficult to understand why he doesn’t explicitly make that connection.

2 thoughts on “The Dionysian in Christian art

  1. Buber’s essay “Altar” (1913 or something) was included in the collection _Pointing the Way_. Its focus is on the resurrection panel of the Isenheim altar. In tone and content, it’s a Dionysian analysis of Christian art –all body, torrent, color, and surge. (Nietzsche also includes Christian dance along with Dionysian dance in Birth of Tragedy, and Buber has a piece on Nijinskyi called “Brother Body,” also in Pointing the Way.)

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