Tuesday, 26 January 2010

A visit to the National Gallery of Ireland

“The Taking of Christ,” painted in Rome in by Caravaggio in 1602

Patrick Comerford

I visited the National Gallery of Ireland this afternoon, with a group of M.Th. students, to see some of the major works of art with a religious theme in its collection.

The most famous exhibit in Dublin must be “The Taking of Christ,” was painted in Rome in 1602 by Caravaggio (Michelangelo da Merisi). We went straight to see it, and so many of us were disappointed to realise that this masterpiece is not on display at present. But the story of this great work is still fascinating.

By the late 18th century, this painting was thought to have been lost. For almost 200 years, it seems no-one seems knew where it was. Then, in 1990, Caravaggio’s lost masterpiece was recognised – it was in a Jesuit house in Dublin, and was positively identified in 1993.

The painting was hanging in the Jesuits’ dining room since the early 1930s, but had long been considered a copy of the lost original by Gerard van Honthorst, also known as Gerard of the Nights, one of Caravaggio’s Dutch pupils. In the 1920s, the painting was sold to an Irish paediatrician who donated it to the Irish Jesuit to thank them for their support after the death of her husband.

In the early 1990s, the Jesuits decided to clean and restore “The Taking of Christ.” As layers of dirt and discoloured varnish were scaled off, the true quality of the painting was uncovered, and it was identified as Caravaggio’s lost work. It is now on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Ireland, but is being restored or loan at present.

Some of the great masterpieces we did see this afternoon included works by Italian, German and Dutch masters, including Titian, Fra Angelico, Rembrandt and Rubens:

“The Crucifixion, Noli me tangere” (ca 1330–40), the Master of Verucchio.

“Christ on the Cross with the Virgin Mary and John” (ca 1430), (the Salzburg School).

“Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian and their Brothers Surviving the Stake” (ca 1440–1442), Fra Angelico.

“The Assumption of the Virgin with Saint Jerome and Francis” (1460s), attributed to Zarobi Strozzi (1412-1468).

“Ecce Homo” by Titian (ca 1485/1490-1576)

“Ecce Homo” (c.1558/60), Titian (ca 1485/1490-1576).

“The Enthronement of Saint Romuold as Bishop of Dublin” – although I can find no saint of this name among the Church of Ireland or Roman Catholic lists of bishops and archbishops of Dublin.

“Jacob blessing the Sons of Joseph” (ca1620), Guercino (1591-1666).

“Saint Mary Magdalene” (ca1625), Domenichino (1581-1641).

The Virgin and Child (1630s), Sassoferrato (1609-1685).

“Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt” (1647), Rembrandt (1606-1669).

Apart from paintings with biblical and religious themes, there was a lot of comment on other works too, including “The Peasant Wedding” (1620) by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-ca 1637).

We could have spent the day there … we could have spent the rest of the week there. We had so many questions. We had so much to point out to each other. We had so many theological insights and reflections. We had so many new perspectives. But it was only a taste, an initial taste. We were back in the chapel by 5 p.m.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.