Nietzsche on Raphael’s Transfiguration: The Illusion of Illusion

The Birth of Tragedy is among the most beautiful works of Friedrich Nietzsche. Overflowing with influences from Hegel, Schopenhauer and Wagner, all of whom the German philosopher later rejected, the book seeks to explore the origins of Greek tragedy. It is in this work that Nietzsche elaborates on the nature of beauty and its relationship with the horrors of life, as well as the Apolline and Dionysian dialectic (read more about Nietzsche’s aesthetic theory here.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche discusses multiple issues drawn from ancient and modern art history. An interesting piece is found in chapter 4 of the book using the Transfiguration of Raphael to explain the idea of the illusion of illusion. The idea consists in that our waking life is illusory, since it is experienced only through the senses. Thus, when we are dreaming, we are living the illusion of an illusion.

According to Nietzche human nature seeks satisfaction in illusion. It is only through the symbolic powers of the Apolline world that it is possible to experience the high beauty of the illusion of illusion in art. Bellow follows the said passage on the Transfiguration.

“Raphael, himself one of those immortal naïves, in one of his allegorical paintings depicted that reduction of illusion to mere illusion, the original act of the naïve artist and also of Apolline culture. In his Transfiguration, the lower half of the painting, with the possessed boy, his despairing bearers, the dismayed and terrified disciples, reveals the reflection of eternal, primal suffering, the sole foundation of the world: ‘illusion’ here is the reflection of the eternal contradiction, of the father of all things. From this illusion there now arises, like an ambrosial vapour, a new and visionary world of illusion of which those caught up in the first illusion see nothing – a radiant floating in the purest bliss and painless contemplation beaming from wide-open eyes. Here in the highest artistic symbolism, we behold that Apolline world of beauty and its substratum, the terrible wisdom of Silenus, and we intuitively understand their reciprocal necessity”¹.


  1. The Birth of Tragedy, 2003, translated by Shaun Whiteside, London: Penguin Group, page 25.

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