Caravaggio’s triumph in Dublin

Caravaggio’s undisputed masterpiece, Taking of Christ (1602), has all the features associated with the artist’s great works: a dramatic subject, chiaroscuro lighting, expressive figures, deep spiritual dimension and magnificent surface detail. The accumulation and individual intensity of these attributes suggests that this painting may be the darkest, densest and the most oppressively claustrophobic of all of Caravaggio’s works. It now hangs proudly at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin where it miraculously re-emerged after centuries in limbo.

The painting depicts the moment of Christ’s betrayal by Judas and his capture by Roman soldiers. There is no garden, no background, no setting, just the action – a snapshot caught in the moment, with neither preparation nor aftermath. The scene shows a fraction of a second when Judas has just kissed Jesus and everyone else is reacting. The large number of figures in the painting – Christ himself, Judas, John, three Roman soldiers and a man with a lantern believed to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio – shows the turmoil of the event where those close to Jesus were taken by surprise.

The focus on action is amplified by Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro, taken to the extremes of tenebrismo where the contrast between light and dark is particularly sharp with little gradation in between and where darkness becomes a dominating feature of the image. The light is coming from the left – from a light source that cannot be seen but, presumably, it is the moon. The lantern held by the man with the facial features of Caravaggio is rather ineffective as a source of light; it merely stands out in the utter darkness that overwhelms the action and all the characters.

Much has been made of the arresting Roman officer’s highly polished, metal-clad arm and its prominent placement in the very centre of the canvas. It has been suggested that it was meant by the artist to serve as a mirror – a mirror of self-reflection and examination of conscience because, theologically speaking, every one of us does betray Jesus by our everyday actions as a sinner. Caravaggio, after all, had previously deployed the same effect using a concave Venetian mirror in his painting of Martha and Mary Magdalene (1598).

To add to the suspense surrounding this enigmatic work, I should also mention its loss and near miraculous re-emergence after some 200 years quite recently. Caravaggio’s work, although famous during his lifetime, was all but forgotten for centuries after his death and this may have allowed this picture to slip off the radar. In 1990, the long lost masterpiece was recognised in the residence of the Society of Jesus in Dublin and as layers of dirt and discoloured varnish were removed, the high technical quality of the painting was revealed to identify it as Caravaggio’s Taking of Christ.