The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio
This past September my wife and I visited Ireland. While we were there, we “discovered” a Caravaggio in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. Actually, this Caravaggio had been “discovered” in August 1990. The Taking of Christ had been hanging in the dining room of the Dublin Jesuits; however, the Jesuits believed that the painting was a 200-year-old copy by one of Caravaggio’s followers, the so-called Caravaggisti. Still, even a two hundred year old copy of a Caravaggisti is valuable. In August 1990, with the painting in need of cleaning, the Jesuits contacted Ireland’s National Gallery of Art. The Gallery sent one of its curators, Sergio Benedetti, to examine the painting prior to restoration.
As Benedetti examined the painting, he noted that it was of an extremely high quality, far better than one might expect from a copyist. He began to wonder if perhaps it might be an original. He took the painting back to the National Gallery where x-rays revealed under-drawings which showed that the artist had re-worked the subject matter. No copyist would do such a thing; they would simply redraw the original. Excited, Benedetti brought in additional experts to examine the painting.
Art historians knew that Caravaggio had painted The Taking of Christ around 1602, but believed that the painting had been lost. It was only known through copies and by descriptions in biographies of Caravaggio. Over the next three years, Benedetti worked to authenticate the painting as an original Caravaggio. In November 1993, the National Gallery in Dublin unveiled its newly “re-discovered” masterpiece. The Jesuits have graciously loaned the painting to the Gallery indefinitely.
As I was looking at The Taking of Christ an elderly Irish gentlemen approached me. He noticed that I had been staring at the painting for about five minutes or so and he asked what I thought of it. I responded that I thought it was one of the greatest paintings that I had ever seen and perhaps Caravaggio’s greatest masterpiece. Not sure how much analysis he was seeking, I said that I thought that the colors were just magnificent. I pointed out how much I loved the red in John’s cloak as he flees and the soldier grabs it. I noted the contrasting yellows, oranges, blues, and greens in the clothes that John, Jesus, and Judas wore. But most of all, I said that the painting of the black armor of the soldier in the foreground took my breath away. Caravaggio has painted shiny, black armor! This armor, more than anything else in the painting had hypnotized me! The bolts, rivets, straps, and buckles are painted with such minute precision; one wonders if this is what caused Benedetti to leave the Jesuits thinking, “This is no copy!”
When I finished my commentary, the elderly gentlemen, who had been nodding, asked me what I thought of the depiction of St. John. I responded with what is the traditional answer, “John is very afraid. He is panicking. His mouth is open in a cry or gasp of fear. He is running away as quickly as he can, but as he flees, his cloak billows back behind him, and the middle soldier grabs it with both hands.”
“I don’t think that is what is happening,” the elderly man replied. This response intrigued me. “Oh?”
“No, Caravaggio was an instigator. I think John is running towards something he sees, not away from the soldiers. I think John is running towards an angel.” The Irish gentlemen went on to explain his theory, which might not be totally without foundation even though it does not seem to fit the entire painting. I did, however, agree with him that Caravaggio is an instigator, which caused me to re-evaluate Caravaggio’s portrayal of St. John.
My immediate recollection of the events portrayed in the betrayal narrative was that Peter cuts off the high priest’s servant’s ear. However, I did not remember any particular mention of John. In fact, none of the Gospels specifically mention John. However, Mark 14:50 reads: “Then his disciples leaving him, all fled away.” Thus, Caravaggio has not done an injustice to John. He has accurately depicted, albeit somewhat theatrically, the account in Mark.
On the far right, the man holding the lantern is a self-portrait of the artist. He peers over the shoulders of the Temple guards to see how Christ will react to this indignity. He directs the viewer’s gaze left, across the soldiers’ gleaming helmets and Judas, to the light that shines from the darkness and envelopes Our Lord. Interestingly, this light seems to have no origin. The light from the lamp would not cause reflections on the exterior of the armor. From whence does this Heavenly Radiance issue?
The lantern holder -- the viewer, Caravaggio -- sees Judas grasp Christ in the Kiss of Betrayal and yet push Him away, recoiling from Our Lord. Judas, peering deeply into Our Lord’s face, sees the expression of utter sadness on Christ’s face, an expression meant specifically for him. In this moment, in the face of Our Lord, Judas realizes the terrible sin he has committed. Our Lord, the Lamb of God, stands passively, hands folded in prayer, waiting to be led away, in contradistinction to John who flees screaming in terror. Both Jesus and Judas are bathed in the Heavenly light and framed by the armored arm of the soldier and the swirling drapery of John’s cloak.
Once again, Caravaggio has taken a dramatic Biblical event, added the theatrical touches of the Baroque, the chiaroscuro lighting of which he was art’s greatest master, and created “one of the greatest paintings that I had ever seen and perhaps Caravaggio’s greatest masterpiece.”
Was Caravaggio an instigator? Probably. A Ruffian? Certainly. A Genius? Unquestionably.