16 April 2014

Art for Lent (43): ‘The Taking of Christ’ (1602)
by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

‘The Taking of Christ’ (1602), by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Patrick Comerford

The Revised Common Lectionary as used in the Church of Ireland provides readings, collects and post-communion prayers for each of the days in Holy Week. The readings for today, Wednesday in Holy Week [16 April 2014], are: Isaiah 50: 4-9a; Psalm 70; Hebrews 12: 1-3; and John 13: 21-32.

My choice of a work of Art for Lent this morning.

In this Gospel reading, Christ talks about his imminent betrayal by Judas. Perhaps the best known painting illustrating the betrayal of Christ by Judas is ‘The Taking of Christ’ (1602) by Caravaggio, which is on display in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, and which is my choice of a work of Art for Lent this morning [16 April 2014].

John 13: 21-32

21 After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ 22 The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. 23 One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; 24 Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. 25 So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ 26 Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. 27After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ 28 Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29 Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the festival’; or, that he should give something to the poor. 30 So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.

The artist and his painting

‘The Taking of Christ,’ painted in 1602 by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573-1610), is on display in the National Gallery of Ireland in Merrion Square, Dublin. It is in oil on canvas and measures 133.5 cm x 169.5 cm. It is on indefinite loan to the National Gallery from the Jesuit Community in Leeson Street, Dublin.

This painting was as a candidate in the RTÉ competition looking for Ireland’s Favourite Painting, and Mel Gibson said that the cinematography in his The Passion of the Christaimed to imitate Caravaggio’s style. The arrest scene in his movie uses similar perspective, lighting, and placement of figures as the painting at the moment the soldiers seize upon Christ.

Caravaggio is one of the few artists to have brought about a radical change in art. He was the most famous painter of his time in Italy, and became a source of inspiration for hundreds of followers throughout Europe.

He was at the height of his fame when he painted ‘The Taking of Christ’ for a Roman aristocrat, the Marchesse Ciriaco Mattei at the end of 1602.

Breaking with artistic tradition, he provided a new visual rendering of the narrative of the Gospels, reducing the space around the three-quarter-length figures and avoiding any description of the setting. All his emphasis is directed on Judas and his kiss, on the Temple guards and on Christ, who appears overwhelmed and offers no resistance.

The fleeing disciple in disarray on the left is Saint John the Evangelist. His arms are raised, his mouth is open and gasping, his cloak is flying and is being snatched back by a soldier.

The fleeing figure of Saint John in his terror is in contrast to the man entering the scene at the far side. He is holding a lantern, it is ineffective, so that only the moon lights the scene from the upper left. This man’s features provide a self-portrait of Caravaggio at the age of 31, seen here as a passive spectator at the divine tragedy.

In all, there seven standing, three-quarter length figures in the painting: from left to right they are Saint John, Christ, Judas, two soldiers, a man with a lamp who provides a self-portrait of Caravaggio, and a third soldier. These seven figures are arrayed before a very dark background, in which the setting is disguised.

The contrast between the fleeing and terrorised figure of Saint John with the soldier who provides a self-portrait of the artist makes the point that even a sinner over 1,500 years after the Crucifixion and the Resurrection has a better understanding of who Christ is than his friends before the Easter events.

By the late 18th century, the painting was thought to have been lost, and its whereabouts remained unknown for about 200 years. In 1990, this masterpiece was recognized in the Jesuit house in Leeson Street, Dublin, and news of its rediscovery was published in November 1993.

The painting had been hanging in the Jesuits’ dining room since the early 1930s, but it had long been considered not the original but a copy by Gerard van Honthorst, also known as Gherardo delle Notti, one of Caravaggio’s Dutch followers.

This erroneous attribution had already been made while the painting was in the possession of the Mattei family, descendant of the aristocrat who had originally commissioned this masterpiece.

In 1802, the Mattei family sold it as a work by Honthorst to William Hamilton Nisbet, and it hung in his home in Scotland it hung until 1921. Later in the 1920s, it was sold to Dr Marie Lea-Wilson, who donated it in the 1930s to the Jesuits in Dublin, in gratitude for their support following the shooting of her husband, Captain Percival Lea-Wilson. He was a District Inspector in the Royal Irish Constabulary in Gorey, Co Wexford, and was shot by the IRA on 15 June 1920.

The painting remained in the possession of the Dublin Jesuits for about 60 years, until it was recognised in the early 1990s by Sergio Benedetti, Senior Conservator of the National Gallery of Ireland. He had been asked by Father Noel Barber, SJ, to examine a number of paintings in the Leeson Street house which the Jesuit community was planning to restore.

As layers of dirt and discoloured varnish were removed, the quality of the painting was revealed, and it was tentatively identified as Caravaggio’s lost work.

Much of the credit for verifying the authenticity of this painting belongs to Francesca Cappelletti and Laura Testa, two graduate students at the University of Rome. During a long period of research, they found the first recorded mention of ‘The Taking of Christ’ in an ancient and decaying account book documenting the original commission and payments to Caravaggio, in the archives of the Mattei family, kept in the cellar of a palazzo in the small town of Recanati.

The painting is now on indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland by the Jesuit Community in Leeson Street.


Lord God,
whose blessed Son our Saviour
gave his back to the smiters,
and did not hide his face from shame:
Give us grace to endure the sufferings
of this present time,
with sure confidence in the glory that shall be revealed;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you humbled yourself in taking the form of a servant
and in obedience died on the cross for our salvation.
Give us the mind to follow you
and to proclaim you as Lord and King,
to the glory of God the Father.

Tomorrow: ‘The Last Supper’ (1592-1594), by Jacopo Tintoretto.

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