We are closing the week (and marking Good Friday) with this stunning picture by Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, commissioned by nobleman Ciraco Mattei in 1602, and currently found in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.
Born Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), Caravaggio was the original ‘bad boy’ of art. His remarkable body of work, with its heightened drama and use of differing levels of dark paint, created the bridge between the High Renaissance and the Baroque school of painting.
There is a compelling quality of Caravaggio’s art that makes him entirely modern. He took his models for saints and angels from the Italian streets; he was a painter of the people, dressing the most heightened figures of religious myth in the clothes of the everyday, so that the public would recognize themselves on a spiritual plane.
His intense focus on human interaction also isolates him from his High Renaissance brethren – never one to be fussy or painterly in his effects, he shines the hot light of focus on the interplay between dramatically lit figures and ignores backgrounds.
Caravaggio studied in Milan under a master who had trained with Titian. He moved to Rome while still a young man in his 20s and quickly set up a reputation as a painter of considerable skill. He also established his reputation as a wild man – drinking, brawling and having a string of affairs with young boys. He killed a man in 1606 during an argument, and fled Rome with a price on his head. He was involved in serious fights in 1608 and 1609 (in Malta and Naples, respectively), and died at 38 from a fever in Porto Ercole, near Grosseto in Tuscany, while on his way to Rome to receive a pardon. (Even then, it paid to have friends in official places.)
The stunning The Taking of Christ presents seven figures: John, Jesus, Judas, three soldiers and Peter, holding a lantern (from left to right). We cannot fully see their bodies, but clearly Judas has just kissed Jesus as a means to betray him to the soldiers. As with much of Caravaggio's work, the background is dark and indistinct, drawing complete attention to the human drama. Also, the light source is unclear – it would seem to come from the upper left, though the lantern light does not seem to be significant. St. Peter holds the lamp; he also betrayed Christ, and spent the remainder of his life repenting and spreading his gospel to the world.
Let’s contrast the two figures at opposite ends of the painting. St. Peter, holding the lamp, is said to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio. The man running away (his cloak held by a restraining soldier) is said to be St. John. If Peter is indeed a self-portrait of the artist, what is Caravaggio trying to tell us? That he, a sinner (and what a sinner!), is better equipped to shed light on the divine than a saint? That his clear vision is aligned with that of God Himself?
Equally striking is the stark, white light on the foreheads of Christ, Judas and Peter. There are two lines on Christ’s brow, but the forehead of Judas is a network of lines. Peter, in contrast, is nearly clear-browed. Even in these little details, Caravaggio speaks to us from across the centuries. The lines on Christ’s head clearly indicate suffering, or, perhaps, the full realization of the suffering to come. The clear-head of St. Peter is clearly the clear-head of the artist; he sees and records, but does not necessarily judge.
But Judas – his forehead is a complex pattern of lines, befitting one of the most complex figures in New Testament mythology. Judas is key to the story of Christ, because without the him, there is no crucifixion, and no resurrection. There is an argument to be made that Judas was the most courageous of all the apostles, for he willingly took on the role of betrayer to ensure the death and resurrection of Christ, making the entire Christian tradition possible. If that is the case, then Judas is indeed the most misunderstood figure in the Christian mythos.
Even more interesting, look at the hands in this picture. The soldier restraining Christ wears a gauntlet and is invisible; the hands of the solider holding St. John’s cloak are in shadow (probably by Caravaggio using a glaze of burnt umber or some other transparent brown paint) – so we can eliminate those hands. But, look at the hands of St. Peter, St. John, Judas and Christ. Compositionally, good pictures ‘read,’ drawing the eye in a consistent pattern. We follow Peter’s hand to John’s, down to the hand of Judas, and finally to those of Christ. According to myth, Christ was praying when identified by Judas, and his clasped hands look as if they are already under police restraint. Not only do these hands help the ‘flow’ of the viewer’s eye, but notice that the hands of Peter, John and Judas indicate one direction, while those of Christ indicate another. This going against the tidal flow of humanity also helps underscore the look on pain on the face of Jesus.
Finally, let’s look at the dramatic, white-hot reflection off of the soldier’s armor that runs through the center of the picture. The face of that solider is undefined in the picture, but the reflected bar of light is fully depicted. There are some scholars who believe that Caravaggio’s intention is to replicate a mirror, and that those gazing at the solider should feel as if they are gazing into a mirror, seeing their own faces. It is a compelling argument, as the biggest patch of reflection is dead-center in the picture.
Whatever the interpretation, though, this is a stunning picture rewarding prolonged examination. There is something mysterious, uncanny even, in Caravaggio’s best work, and this picture is no exception. I don’t think I have fully exhausted everything it has to say.
(More on Caravaggio’s works can be found on this blog on links to the right.)