Many evils that men do, and not just the Judas Kiss, seem to deepen the dark shadows of "The Taking of Christ," the long-lost Caravaggio that the Jesuits of Dublin have briefly placed on loan at the National Gallery of Art.
Wrongs of many kinds--intentional disfigurements, public humiliations, a stabbing at a tennis match in 1606 in Rome, a 1920 shooting on a quiet Irish road--haunt the history of that somber canvas. It is almost as if they swirl about it the way that deep-red drapery sweeps around the faces of Jesus, Judas and Saint John the Evangelist.
John is fleeing, screaming. Prayerful and resigned, Jesus is recoiling from a human he once loved. Judas is in turmoil. His gaze is fierce, his eyes are red. His forehead is furrowed. Now he comprehends--or does he?--what he has begun.
Michelangelo Merisi (better known as Caravaggio from his childhood home in Lombardy) is the other crucial actor in this 400-year-old vision. He appears in his own picture at the far right, 31 years old here. His good-looking, dark Italian face has not yet been slashed by the daggers of his enemies. He's holding up a lantern--though the light that rakes the scene is not a lantern's light.
Caravaggio changed painting. He undid its well-lit elegance. His space is not the crystalline, ruled-and-measured space of earlier Italian art. His light is not the even light of clarity and reason. His figures aren't the godlike beings, handsome and well groomed, who populate the paintings of Raphael and Leonardo. They're more like street people. The hair of Jesus is unbrushed. Judas's orange sleeve is fraying at the cuff, and his hand is not the hand of some white marble statue, it's a peasant's grimy paw.
Gritty, action-packed, ungentle, "The Taking of Christ" is like a shot from a noir movie, close up and flash-lit.
That scooping curve of drapery is the painting's only obvious bow to the antique. Caravaggio (1571-1610) broke the old rules of the Renaissance. He didn't honor Greece or pay homage to geometry. He was subversively a realist. His space is dark and shallow, his narrative compressed. He gave painting a dark drama it had not known before.
The National Gallery of Art can only borrow his grand pictures. It owns no Caravaggios. The respectable, high-minded, vastly rich Americans who forged its great collections did not much care for baroque art, or for Caravaggio. They didn't like the nakedness of his male nudes, or the severed heads he painted, or the way he propagandized for the Roman Catholic Church. He was not their cup of tea.
Caravaggio was rough. A master of the brush, he also was a thug. He brawled and bragged and gambled. He kept getting arrested. Once, dining out in Rome, he hurled a platter at a waiter, apparently displeased by the butter on his artichokes. He broke windows. He was sued for libel. He fought over whores. In October 1605, he was found bleeding in the street with knife cuts to his throat and ear. He said nobody had touched him, that he'd fallen on his sword. During his 14 years in Rome he was brought before the magistrates 11 times. Then he went too far.
Finally he killed a man, Ranuccio Tomassoni. First he drew his rapier and stuck him in the thigh, and then, when Tomassoni fell, Caravaggio approached again and stuck him in the groin. They'd been playing pallacorda, a sort of Roman tennis. It was Sunday evening, May 28, 1606. Caravaggio, an outlaw now, fled into the Sabine Hills. He never again saw Rome.
He was equally familiar with triumph and disaster. When Caravaggio was flush he splashed the cash around, and dressed in costly fabrics, and swaggered in the streets. He was lionized in Naples, and became a Knight of Malta. In 1602, the year he painted the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, he was living in the palace of Cardinal Griolamo Mattei, well fed and well paid. But when fortune turned against him, the results were catastrophic. In Malta he'd be thrown into a 16-foot-deep dungeon. Later he'd be maimed, his handsome face disfigured by a team of hired toughs. The wounds had not yet healed when he died in 1610.
In one way he's like Warhol, Dali and Picasso: You cannot see the art without thinking of the man.
His painting was original. His influence was vast. His shallow, writhing space and his use of light and shadow would have a lasting impact on Dutch, French and Flemish art. And yet for a long while he was pretty much forgotten. Even the Mattei family of Rome, who had hired him and housed him, managed to lose track of what it was he'd done.
By the time they sold "The Taking of Christ"--to William Hamilton Nisbet, a Scottish laird, in 1802--they had managed to attribute it to someone else entirely. They thought it was the work of Gerrit van Honthorst, one of Caravaggio's Dutch followers, and said so on the label on the picture's gilded frame.
In 19th-century Scotland the gloomy, Catholic picture, now darkened by old varnish, attracted slight attention. Nobody much wanted it. In 1921 it was sent off to a firm of Edinburgh auctioneers, the only bid received was a derisory 5 guineas, and the work remained unsold.
Eventually a private sale was arranged--to a Dublin pediatrician. Marie Lea-Wilson had a story of her own.
As a young woman she had married Percival Lea-Wilson, a military Englishman, a district inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary, much hated by the rebels of the IRA. Lea-Wilson, it was said, mistreated his Irish prisoners. In 1916, after the Easter Rising, one was forced to strip naked in daylight in the street. The IRA remembered. It waited for four years.
On June 16, 1920, in the town of Gorey in County Wexford, Lea-Wilson, who'd just bought his morning newspaper, was shot dead in the road outside the village shop.
His widow, swathed in black, viewed him as a martyr. Good works assuaged her grief. So did her deepening faith. She became a physician. She treated needy children. And she bought herself a painting, a dramatic, darkly varnished one that showed another innocent resignedly accepting another unjust fate.
Sometime early in the 1930s she gave it to the Jesuits of Dublin, who placed it in the dining room of their community house on Leeson Street. And then in 1990, the Rev. Noel Barber, who accompanied the work to Washington, decided that the time had come for his grimy painting to be cleaned.
He remembers telephoning the National Gallery of Ireland, whose experts were willing to clean the Honthorst, but only if it were an authentic Honthorst--they weren't interested in working on less important pictures. This one was, it turned out, more important than they'd dreamed.
When he came to see the painting, the gallery's Sergio Benedetti suspected its true authorship almost at first glimpse. He already knew the image, for the painting had been copied by lesser artists many times. He also recognized the brushwork. And various overpaintings--visible after cleaning--proved beyond dispute that this was the first version, the one that Caravaggio had worked out himself.
Many of its details had been fine-tuned by the artist, and his editing still showed. He had, for instance, thickened the soldier's fraying leather belt where it slips into the buckle. He had lowered Judas's ear (the ghost of the initial ear is still clearly visible). And in one of his last touches, Caravaggio had added the triangle of drapery below St. John's chin.
Though accompanied by a handful of other baroque pictures from the gallery's collection, "Caravaggio's 'The Taking of Christ': Saints and Sinners in Baroque Painting" is essentially a one-picture show. There have been others at the National Gallery, many of them memorable. The French, who much approved of the high style of the Kennedy White House, sent the Mona Lisa here in 1963. Caravaggio's "Deposition" from the Vatican and Titian's "The Flaying of Marsyas" have also been on loan here. Such distraction-free exhibits encourage one to focus on one amazing picture, and all have been, as this one is, memorable shows.
"The Taking of Christ" was previously displayed in "Caravaggio: The Master Revealed" at the National Gallery of Ireland and in "Saints and Sinners: Caravaggio and the Baroque Image" at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College. See it while you can. The painting, whose Washington showing is funded by EduCap Inc., will remain in the West Building through July 18.
CAPTION: Only in 1990 did its owner learn that "The Taking of Christ" is a Caravaggio.