01 January 2011

Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ - at home in Dublin

I read a Caravaggio article by James F Clarity in The New York Times. Only later did I see a much longer and more detailed analysis of the apparently lost painting in the brilliant BBC series The Private Life of a Masterpiece, 2009. It was a better story than Dan Brown could have told... and all true!

Recently Sergio Benedetti, the gallery's senior conservator, stood behind a hushed crowd in the National Gallery of Ireland. The crowd was expressing its pleasure about the painting he hoped would give the museum new status in the art world: a wide canvas of dark gloom and sparkling light showing Judas as he kissed Christ. At the same time, a soldier gripped Jesus' neck, ready to drag Him away for crucifixion.

Guernica magazine described the scene accurately and colourfully. "The implied violence of the scene foreshadows the future. No routine arrest, this is a brutal takedown, ordered by the highest authorities, of a cult leader whose teachings threatened the social fabric of one of Rome's occupied territories. Because we know the story, and because the tension in the work is so tangible, we know what's to come: interrogations, brutal public torture, and of course, execution. It contains, within a common religious scene, the brutality of an age."

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's painting, The Taking of Christ c1602, has been hanging in the gallery since Nov 1993. Finally the 3 years of detective work, technical examination and restoration by Mr Benedetti had paid off. It is one of only 65 or 70 works by the painter that experts have certified as authentic. Caravaggio, a notorious carouser and duelist, died in 1610 in rather tragic circumstances, eight years after this particular painting was completed. He was only 39.

The Taking of Christ 
by Caravaggio, c1602 
134 cm × 169 cmThe National Gallery of Ireland

Since its installation in the Irish gallery, the painting has been attracting spectators at a record pace. "Museum directors all over the world would give their eye teeth to have a painting like this," said Raymond Keaveney, the gallery's director. Mr Benedetti agreed, noting that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has two Caravaggios (Music and Lute Player), but the National Gallery in Washington and the Getty have none. This will put us on the map, he said of the gallery, a splendid Georgian building in the centre of Dublin. The Caravaggio is now the centrepiece of a collection that includes two Rembrandts.

The Caravaggio, whose authenticity was verified by 10 European experts who travelled to Dublin to examine it, first came into Mr Benedetti's view when he was asked to restore it by its owners. The owners were a community of Jesuit priests who had it hanging in the dining room and parlour of their Dublin residence for 60 years. They thought it was, as the title on its frame says, the work of a Dutch painter, Gerrit van Honthorst. Gerard van Honthorst was not a bad guess; he was in any case one of Caravaggio’s Dutch followers. But the real treasure, the original Caravaggio, was thought lost for all times.

The painting, now on permanent loan to the gallery, had reached the Dublin Jesuits by a twisting route, which Mr Benedetti retraced over three long years to verify its provenance. It was painted a year before another Caravaggio masterpiece, Supper at Emmaus, now in the National Gallery in London, for the Roman palace of the Mattei noble family whose ancestors had originally commissioned it.

The painting stayed in the Mattei Palace until 1802. Then it was mislabelled (by mistake or intentionally) as the work of Honthorst and sold to a Scottish landowner, William Hamilton Nisbit. In the 1920s, a Dublin physician, Dr Marie Lea-Wilson, bought it for less than $1,000. In the mid-1930s, Dr. Wilson gave it to the Jesuits, who noticed a few years ago that it was becoming dirty and got in touch with Mr Benedetti.

Sergio Benedetti said "After one month of working on it, everything was so perfect. I began to look for things wrong. But I could find nothing. The pentimenti were all there." These corrective touches by the artist included the over-painting of Judas's ear to make it smaller and the narrowing of a soldier's belt. In addition, on Christ's face, close to the hairline, there is a squiggle indicating a curl probably executed with the butt end of the artist's paint brush," a technique Caravaggio used in other work. "A copyist wouldn't bother with pentimenti. He would follow the original. Honthorst was a good painter, but not one-twentieth of the painter Caravaggio was." He declined to estimate the work's value except to say it would be in the millions of dollars.

The Dublin painting was recently on loan to an Italian gallery, as part of Caravaggio's 400th anniversary.

The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

In a totally unrelated set of circumstances, Caravaggio's painting The Taking of Christ or The Kiss of Judas c1602, had been stolen in July 2008 from the Ukrainian Museum of Western and Eastern Art in Odessa. The badly damaged work, which looks very similar to our Irish painting, was recently recovered in Berlin after four members of an international gang of art thieves wanted to sell it.

It would be interesting to know if Caravaggio painted both of them, and which of the two paintings came first. The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art reported that the Dublin picture was lighter yet more brooding, and the figures were sharper. The Odessa figures, particularly that of Christ, were different and less refined than Caravaggio’s normal work.

"The Irish work is undisputedly regarded as the work that is documented as commissioned in 1602 by the Mattei family in Rome", said Fionnuala Croke, the Irish gallery's Keeper and Head of Collections. "Obviously Caravaggio's influence was enormous in his own lifetime and in succeeding generations and there were many copies of this work because it would have been seen by many, many guests and visitors to the Mattei family home, which was in the centre of Rome. There is a record in the Mattei family records that there was a copy commissioned of our painting by another member of the Mattei family in 1626 that was painted by another artist who was otherwise completely unknown called Giovanni di Attilio. Sergio Benedetti believes that it is this copy, painted 20 years after our original, which is the Odessa painting." She added that the Odessa painting had the exact dimensions of the original, which pointed to the fact that it was copied directly from the Caravaggio original.


andrew1860 said...

I love story's of rediscovered masterpieces. I can't tell you how many religious places I have been that have 18th & 19th century copy's of great paintings. Every once and awhile one of them turns out to be a masterpiece. I myself have found great American paintings but I'm still looking to hit the jackpot! Great post.

Hels said...

Happy new year :) Hope it is a great one, for all our bloggy mates.

I think every art historian and collector in the universe dreams of discovering or rediscovering a masterpiece. The interesting thing in this case was that the community of Jesuit priests, who had it hanging in their Dublin dining room, were perfectly happy with its attribution i.e to Gerrit van Honthorst.

*sigh* the God of the art world moves in mysterious ways.

artlover15 said...

I love Caravaggio. It is possible that both versions of the scene were painted by him.

Hels said...


agreed. From looking at the two paintings on line, there is no way of telling them apart. The Dublin experts relied on both text-based records and physical examination of the painting. But they could well be wrong.

Happy new year

Hermes said...

I've always thouht this a very powerful painting but knew nothing about it. Many thanks.

Hels said...

Caravaggio might have been a brawling, drinking man with a taste for underage boys and girls, but he could certainly paint. Perhaps his rough lifestyle gave him a very special eye for real drama and human emotion in his images.

P. M. Doolan said...

Happy New Year Hels,

A very good book on this topic is: Jonathan Harr, The Lost Painting: The quest for a Carravaggio (Random House, 2005)

Hels said...

Mr Doolan,
good to see you. Happy 2011.

When I set reading for the students, they see it as a chore to complete. When I receive a good reference in peoples' blogs, I see it as a true blessing. Thank you.

It is interesting that Harr started with the same (wealthy) Mattei family and got to The Taking of Christ almost by accident.

Sally said...

Fantastic story isn't it! Caravaggio is my favourite artists and I have been privileged to see the exhibition which was in Australia a few years ago, which contained 9 works. I saw it in both Sydney and Melbourne - hung quite differently in the AGNSW and NGA - looked like two distinctly separate exhibitions, which just demonstrated the importance of the curator and his/her interpretation, as well as the actual hanging spaces.
Then I saw a fabulous exhibition at the National Gallery in London. One of the most powerful parts was both Suppers at Emmaus were there and with a few years between them, you could see the development as an artist, and also the difference in temperament.

Since then I have seen most if not all the ones in Rome and Naples and an ambition is to visit every Caravaggio in my retirement! What a shame it will necessitate going to some interesting and various places around the world, including Dublin! Hardships....

The Flagellation of Christ in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples is astounding, especially as it is hung at the end of a very long corridor in the former palace that is the museum....

Thanks for all your visits to Sydney Daily Photo, and sorry I don't get time for returns - but I do appreciate your comments very much. Wishing you and your loved ones a very happy 2011.


Hels said...

what a great comment, thanks :)

"What a shame it will necessitate going to some interesting and various places around the world, including Dublin! Hardships....". Hmmm sometimes a woman has to do what a woman has to do! Just force yourself!

But don't wait for retirement. We could be impoverished by then, or frail, or Rome might have fallen into the Tiber.

I even went to Malta, specifically to see both Beheading of St John the Baptist, and St Jerome, at the Co-Cathedral of St John, Valletta. I loved the paintings and better still, I discovered Malta :)