Caravaggio Masterwork Shows Christ's Passion

An unusual masterpiece of religious art, Caravaggio's "Taking of Christ," is temporarily on view in this area as the centerpiece of a special exhibition entitled "Saints and Sinners in Baroque Painting" at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The picture, originally painted for Cardinal Girolamo Mattei in 1602, went unrecognized for centuries and came into the possession of the Society of Jesus of Ireland during the 1930s. When Father Noel Barber, the Jesuit Provincial Delegate in Ireland, asked the National Gallery of Ireland for help in cleaning the darkened painting less than a decade ago, its real identity as a lost Caravaggio was uncovered. The dramatic picture is an excellent example of how Caravaggio succeeded in fulfilling the injunction of the Council of Trent for a new religious art that would "teach, delight and uplift" the viewers. The very format brings it literally into our faces. Unlike traditional religious paintings, in which the figures were often full length and viewed at a safe distance, the saints and sinners of Caravaggio's work are portrayed life-size and at half-length, just as we would see them if they were only a few feet away from ourselves. Christ, Judas, the capturing soldiers, a fleeing apostle and a witness with a lantern are all picked out of the dark surroundings by brilliant spotlights which emphasize their hands and faces, hallmarks of Caravaggio's "tenebrist" style which became so influential in the seventeenth century and spread rapidly from Rome throughout Europe. The viewer's eyes are drawn toward the suffering face of Christ and his hands folded in a gesture of submission, together with the furrowed brow of Judas as he seizes Christ with a grimy hand to kiss Him. Both heads are framed in the flying red cloak of the fleeing apostle on the left. Surprisingly, the physical center of the composition is occupied not by these primary characters, but by the shiny armor of the protruding shoulder of the soldier who seizes Christ at the moment of the betraying kiss. Caravaggio frequently used mirrors in his paintings to incite the viewer to self-contemplation and examination of conscience, and the armor may be intended as a metaphorical mirror. The artist added his own self-portrait to the scene as a witness, the man holding a lantern at the far right edge of the canvas. Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio for his birthplace in Lombardy in northern Italy, became one of the most influential artists in Rome around the turn of the 17th century. His art shocked many patrons and critics of the day, because he peopled his religious compositions with realistic images of the down and out of Rome, with their ragged clothing, dirty hands and feet, and all the physical signs of their dissolute life. But Caravaggio was inspired by the Franciscans and the Oratorians of St. Philip Neri, who ministered to the poor and outcast whose numbers swelled Rome in the early 1600s. Many peasants were thrown off the land by wars and upheavals, and came into the cities as beggars and petty criminals. Cardinal Girolamo Mattei, at whose Roman palace Caravaggio resided for two years, was a pious and reserved prelate who sat on the papal commission overseeing morals and was the protector of the Observant Franciscans, the strictest of the Franciscan orders, and of the Catholics of Ireland. He was noted for his dedication to spreading the decrees of the Council of Trent. The typical elements of the Franciscan ethic -- abnegation, obedience, and sacrifice -- seem to be expressed in Caravaggio's picture by the prominent gesture of Jesus' clasped hands. Even though Caravaggio was not close to the Jesuits during his lifetime, Father Noel Barber, the Irish Jesuit Provincial Delegate, observed that this picture which ended up in the hands of the Irish Jesuits is attuned to the method of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Jesuit founder. St. Ignatius urged the Christian to engage all five senses in the active contemplation of the Passion of Christ. The Catholic Church, which was at that time defending the use of images for religious contemplation against the criticisms of the Protestants, understood that visual images were more powerful than words and leave a direct and indelible imprint of the reality of the Incarnation. The picture's history is as intriguing as its content. By the 1790s the old Roman noble families, including the Mattei, were in serious decline. After the invasion of the French army under Napoleon in 1798, their predicament worsened by the imposition of heavy taxes. Many aristocrats tried to salvage their fortunes by selling the family's art collections. Thus in 1802, the Scottish aristocrat William Hamilton Nisbet purchased six paintings from the Mattei family, including the "Taking of Christ" which slipped out of Italy under the mistaken name of "Gherardo Della Notte," an Italian nickname for the Dutch follower of Caravaggio, Gerard Honthorst. In 1921 it was purchased from the heirs of Nisbet by Dr. Marie Lea-Wilson. Dr. Lea-Wilson was the young widow of an Irish judge who was gunned down in the street because IRA militants believed that he had mistreated their prisoners following the 1916 uprising. She studied medicine and became a leading pediatrician. Distraught over her husband's murder, she sought spiritual direction from the Jesuit Father Finley in Dublin. In gratitude for his help, in the early 1930s Dr. Lea-Wilson donated the picture to the Jesuit Fathers of the house of St. Ignatius in Dublin. In 1990, the Father Superior, Noel Barber, S.J., asked Sergio Benedetti, the chief restorer of the National Gallery of Ireland, to restore the picture. Benedetti, an expert on Italian 17th century art, recognized the lost Caravaggio. Paintings by Caravaggio, who died after a tumultuous life in 1610, are rare outside of Italy. The National Gallery of Art in Washington does not own one, and this is why the generosity of the Jesuits and National Gallery of Ireland in lending the "Taking of Christ" is especially appreciated. It highlights the exhibition of eight French, Spanish, and Italian paintings from the same period from the Washington gallery's own permanent collection. Among these are two which show Caravaggio's influence on other leading artists of his time. Jusepe de Ribera was a Spanish artist who worked most of his life in Naples. His "Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew," one of the Twelve Apostles, who was flayed alive for destroying pagan idols, uses Caravaggio's tenebrist technique and half-length format to encourage the faithful to participate in the suffering of the martyred saint. More than any other artist of his time, Ribera evoked the spirit of St. Ignatius by combining the physical reality of the subject with the underlying mysticism of his religious experience. The cruel executioner sharpening his blade (which curiously resembles a cross) to flay the saint, is a first cousin of Caravaggio's Judas. The saint almost falls into our space and his face is so radiantly lighted as to focus on his mystical experience before death, rather than his physical suffering. St. Sebastian was an early Christian saint who had been an officer of the Roman Praetorian guard. He was condemned to death by Diocletian when the secret of his Christianity was discovered. He was shot by arrows and left to die but a pious Roman widow, St. Irene, nursed him back to health. The painting by Tanzio da Varallo, who like Caravaggio came from northern Italy, shows St. Irene supporting Sebastian's body while an angel plucks an arrow from his chest. Irene's good deed made her a model of charity. Sebastian was later martyred by being clubbed to death. The recent cleaning of the picture has made it even more powerful by restoring the brilliancy of Tanzio's north Italian palette.

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