Currently on display at the National Gallery Trafalgar Square
The Taking of Christ
Several years ago a recently bereaved widow gave what was believed to be a copy of The Taking of Christ painted by Caravaggio in 1602 to the Jesuit priests on Dublin’s Leeson Street by way of thanks for the support they have given her on the death of her husband.
The painting on display in the refectory of the college since 1990 needed restoring and the new chaplain called on the National Gallery of Ireland to take a look and determine how it could be restored to its former glory. Suspicions were raised immediately and the experts were called in to take a look only to discover that it was not a copy by the Dutch artist Van Honthorst at all but the original Caravaggio believed to have been lost for decades. After its restoration, the Jesuits handed it over on permanent loan to the National Gallery of Ireland where it would be on display and the public would have access to this most wonderful painting.
The Taking of Christ is the highlight of the ‘Beyond Caravaggio’ exhibition taking place at the National Gallery in London and once the exhibition is over, it will be returned to its permanent home in Ireland.
The scene depicts Christ in a cinematic and emotional charged composition sadly accepting the kiss of Judas and with it his terrible fate. Christ’s friends are deserting him, the tension, the alarm is almost palpable. Because the storytelling is so powerful and theatrical, it makes you feel part of the action, you are a participant in the tragedy that is about to unfold. The distress on Christ’s face with the lowered eyes is profound alongside the passivity of his body and hands as he is clutched by Judas. The depiction shows how Judas betrayed Christ in front of the soldiers, the implication being that he would soon be heading towards his Cruxifiction and death.
Caravaggio used a moonlight scene with real people, a modern day role-play if you like. As often in a Caravaggio work, he has painted himself into the scene so perhaps he is the original king of the ‘selfie’. The figure on the right hand side of the painting is Caravaggio himself holding the Chinese lantern high so that the faces are visible (see my photograph of the poster above showing Caravaggio’s face).
Caravaggio inspired a generation of painters with his unique approach referred to as ‘chiaroscuro’, the contrast between light and shade. Even at a distance the darkness of the painting is striking since most of the canvas is black, it serves as a contrast to the dimly lit main scene depicting the distress on Christ’s face as a result of Judas’ treachery.
Fortunately I have managed to see this painting four times (so far) both in Dublin and in London and was moved each time by the sadness it instills in the viewer.
So if you have missed seeing the painting in London, head to the National Gallery of Ireland from February to be awed by the majesty of Ireland’s favourite painting.