Monday, August 24, 2015

Caravaggio in Dublin, Triumph of the Soulless

Having once been in Malta and failing to see that island's sole Caravaggio painting, I was determined not to make the same mistake when recently visiting the island of Ireland. The Taking of Christ can be found in Dublin's delightful National Gallery of Ireland - delightful because of  the courtesy of the museum staff, the fine collection of art, the lack of crowds and the fact that it is free of charge. So, perfectly reasonable to drop in, in pursuit of a glimpse of a single work.

The Taking of Christ is the latest Caravaggio to be discovered. Half the art history world (admittedly, a small, select world) had been wondering for years where could Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ be? For a half-dozen or so passionate academics (not an oxymoron by the way)) the hunt for the missing Caravaggio was the equivalent of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. And it was eventually found in, of all places, Dirty Old Dublin Town. It had been hanging for years in the dining hall of the Jesuit order in Dublin without the Men in Black quite knowing that they had a treasure from the master himself. They believed that the painting that greeted them every morning while they eat their simple porridge was a copy of Caravaggio's missing masterpiece. In the early 1990s it was discovered that what they had thought was a copy, was actually the real thing!  Now it hangs proudly, all cleaned up, spic and span, in the National Gallery.

Let's skip the fact that Caravaggio, between wild nights of debauchery, regular fighting and murder was an incomparable master of his craft, possessing a knowledge of light and shadow that puts him almost on a par with Rembrandt. All that is a given. But there are a couple of quirky things about this work that I must say I love. Firstly, there is the centre of the piece. It is the chap's armed shoulder. In a painting that depicts the arrest of Jesus Christ, Caravaggio dares to make the exact centre of the picture the luminous orb that is the soldier's metal shoulder. He has literally given us the cold shoulder. What a dare-devil. And incredible that it works. We are drawn towards the reflective surface, half expecting to see our own image staring back at us.And where does the mysterious light that illuminates the long metal arm come from? Certainly not from the rain-swollen Dublin sky.

Then there is the face of the guards. We only catch a glimpse of of the first one. But it could be your Dad. For some strange reason his nose is eerily 21st century.  And the chap to his right looks like he could be standing on the terraces cheering for St. Patrick's Athletic. His beard is red-tinged, making him very at home in Dublin. He is just a bearded, working-class lad, doing his job. 

I also love how Caravaggio has inserted himself into the painting. He is in the top right, holding the lantern. Yes, holding the lantern that throws a bit more light upon the scene, but not to help out the soldiers in their filthy work, those obedient, brutal footmen of the establishment. No, he is holding up the lantern in order to lighten up the scene, so we can enjoy it. That's right. The artist is someone who holds up the light so that we can see. As Matisse wrote, happiness comes from "illuminating the fog that surrounds us." Look at his eager face;  he doesn't want to miss a second of the scene that he is illuminating, the scene that he is painting.

One more thing that I love about this picture, and maybe it is purely personal, but it so very obviously reminds me of Star Wars, or any mythic-science-fiction-fantasy in which freedom is threatened by the mindless robots that serve the conformity of the machine. For that is what the armor does to the guards arresting Jesus. There is a third guard hidden behind Caravaggio; we can only see his helmet and one staring eye. The faceless eye of surveillance. That's what armor does to all us, doesn't it? Maybe in the weekend we cheer our children's football team, or sink a few pints with the lads. Maybe we're good fathers, loving husbands. But let us clamber into our shiny, squeaky uniforms and we become exactly what is needed in order for the soulless to triumph. Such are the ideas that seeing this Caravaggio puts into my head. I dare you: see Caravaggio and tremble.


  1. Thank you, thank you! I too was fascinated by this story, see

    but I need to check out one issue before I get back to you.


  2. I wanted to have a look at another version of the same painting, Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ, which had been stolen from the Odessa Museum of Art in the Ukraine. As far as I can see from the small photos on-line, the two Caravaggios look very similar. And even the sizes are within a cm or two of other (134 cm × 170 cm) .

    1. Many belief that the painting in Odessa is also from Caravaggio - that he made a copy of his own work. There are at least 10 copies floating around. One is in Rome and about ten years ago some art historians claimed that the version in Rome is the original, though I think the majority view still accepts the Dublin version as being the original, the Odessa version being a copy by Caravaggio himself and the others as being copies made by other 17th century painters. I suppose we can be fairly certain that we will never be certain about any of this.