What Makes Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ a Timeless, Great Painting?

Michelan­ge­lo Merisi da Car­avag­gio had many fol­low­ers. He was, after all, the most revered painter in Rome before he was exiled for mur­der. After his own death, his work fell into a peri­od of obscu­ri­ty and might have dis­ap­peared were it not for his many imi­ta­tors. Called Car­avaggisti or tene­brosi (“shad­ow­ists”), those who adopt­ed Caravaggio’s high-con­trast hyper­re­al­ism, includ­ing Dutch mas­ters like Rem­brandt, pro­duced the finest work of the Baroque peri­od. Some of Caravaggio’s dis­ci­ples were so good they pro­duced copies of his work that could fool experts. And some­times experts could be fooled into think­ing a Car­avag­gio was actu­al­ly the work of a copy­ist.

Such was the case with Caravaggio’s strik­ing can­vas, The Tak­ing of Christ, a depic­tion of the New Tes­ta­ment sto­ry of Jesus’ arrest and betray­al by his first dis­ci­ple, Peter. Com­mis­sioned by Roman noble­man Ciri­a­co Mat­tei in 1602, the paint­ing dis­ap­peared and was thought to have been lost until 1993, when it was found hang­ing in a Jesuit house in Ire­land. The Jesuits had thought it to be the work of Dutch artist Ger­ard van Hon­thorst, a painter who acquired the Ital­ian  nick­name Gher­ar­do del­li Not­ti (“Ger­ard of the nights”) after a vis­it to Rome inspired him to take up Caravaggio’s dra­mat­i­cal­ly lit style.

“Car­avag­gio’s approach to reli­gious art was shock­ing and con­tro­ver­sial in his time,” notes the video. “His work was cen­sored, dis­missed and crit­i­cized, but it would lead to an entire­ly new kind of Chris­t­ian art.” The vio­lent dynamism of his paint­ings “was matched only by his tem­pes­tu­ous lifestyle.” Dead at age 38, the painter left behind only around 90 paint­ings and draw­ings, and these inti­mate­ly reveal the marks of the artist. “Car­avag­gio’s tech­nique was as spon­ta­neous as his tem­per,” notes the Nation­al Gallery. “He paint­ed straight onto the can­vas with min­i­mal prepa­ra­tion.”

Such is the case in The Tak­ing of Christ. The Nation­al Gallery of Ire­land, which hous­es the rev­o­lu­tion­ary work, point out that “numer­ous pen­ti­men­ti (changes of mind)” on the can­vas, “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.” He also seems to have lit­er­al­ly paint­ed him­self into the scrum: “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.”

Car­avag­gio’s face and dis­tinc­tive­ly rapid tech­nique show up fre­quent­ly in his work, but so lit­tle was known about him for so long that schol­ars seemed to have a dif­fi­cult time telling an orig­i­nal from a copy. The Tak­ing of Christ has 12 such known copies, some believed to be by Car­avag­gio him­self. One hung in the Odessa Muse­um of West­ern and East­ern Art in Ukraine. It was lat­er claimed that the paint­ing was a faith­ful ren­di­tion by an obscure Ital­ian painter, made at the request of Asdrubale Mat­tei, broth­er of the orig­i­nal painter’s own­er. Car­avag­gio’s many imi­ta­tors paid him the high­est of com­pli­ments, and made cer­tain his influ­ence sur­vived his untime­ly death.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Short Intro­duc­tion to Car­avag­gio, the Mas­ter Of Light

How Car­avag­gio Paint­ed: A Re-Cre­ation of the Great Master’s Process

Liv­ing Paint­ings: 13 Car­avag­gio Works of Art Per­formed by Real-Life Actors

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.