Friday, August 29, 2014

An Obscure Masterpiece

Willard Spiegelman, Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, describes Caravaggio's masterpiece, "The Taking of Christ" for The Wall Street Journal:

Seven figures, one barely noticeable, are tightly bound within the confines of a small space. On the left, John the Evangelist turns his back on the others, his hands lifted in shock, surprise or exclamation. Next to him, Christ is dressed in red and blue garments. His eyes, hooded to the point of invisibility, look down, and he clasps his hands in resignation. Judas, having just kissed the Savior, grips Jesus with his left hand. Both men—typical of Caravaggio—have dirty nails. Their brows are furrowed. John, Jesus and Judas look like parts of one person, their three heads all in a line, with John's seemingly joined Siamese-fashion to Christ's, and Judas's mouth having just separated from the man he has sold to the enemy.

Dead center in the picture is the arresting officer, of whose face we can see only a nose and the outline of an upper lip. Otherwise, he is a study in metal. His left arm clasps Christ and his hand extends from the shiny, steel-colored armor of his arm and breastplate. His helmet completes the image. He is all exoskeleton, barely a man at all. The painter has offered an allegory of the way the State—hard, metallic and unyielding—comes to overwhelm compliant, beleaguered, passive humanity. Beside the main officer another, older, soldier reveals more flesh—nose and moustache—but in neither of these figures can we see eyes. In the rear we can make out only the outline of yet one more soldier.

This leaves us with the most mysterious figure of all, neither Roman nor Jew. Dark-headed, handsome, with eyes fully revealed and looking intently at the scene in front of him, this man holds in his right hand a lantern, which offers illumination from behind and to the right of Jesus and Judas. Who is he? The consensus among the experts is that Caravaggio has produced a self-portrait.

This is one of "Ireland's Favorite Paintings" at the National Gallery of Ireland, which displays it on indefinite loan from the Irish Jesuits.

Image Credit: Public Domain.

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