'The Taking of Christ' by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
133.5 x 169.5 cm
Oil on canvas
On indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson St., Dublin, who acknowledge the kind generosity of the late Dr Marie Lea-Wilson, 1992
Caravaggio painted this extraordinary work for the Roman Marquis Ciriaco Mattei in 1602. Offering a new visual approach to the biblical story, Caravaggio placed the figures close to the picture plane and used a strong light-and-dark contrast, giving the scene an extraordinary sense of drama.
Judas has identified Christ with a kiss, as the temple guards move in to seize Him. The fleeing disciple in disarray on the left is St John the Evangelist. Only the moon lights the scene. Although the man at the far right is holding a lantern, it is, in reality, an ineffective source of illumination. In that man’s features Caravaggio portrayed himself, aged 31, as an observer of events, a device he frequently used in his paintings.
Numerous pentimenti (changes of mind), now visible due to changes over time in the paint layer, are a reminder of the artist’s unconventional way of posing models in tableaux and altering details as he worked.
The painting was a well-documented commission, and was frequently copied by contemporary artists. By the twentieth century, however, the painting had disappeared, having been sold by the family in 1802, and misattributed to Gerrit van Honthorst, a Dutch follower of Caravaggio. Scholars resumed searching for the original in the 1940s, as many of them no longer accepted the authenticity of a painting in the Odessa Art Museum, now known to be a copy made for another member of the Mattei family in 1626.
The painting has now regained its status as a key work by Caravaggio, completed during the artist’s short, but highly productive, period in Rome. It has all the features associated with his great works: a dramatic story, chiaroscuro lighting, expressive figures, combined with a spiritual dimension and magnificent surface detail.