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

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