Christ taken, 1602
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin
Oil on canvas 133.5 x 169.5cm
“Caravaggio’s nocturnal vision includes two different light sources, an internal one from the lantern and an external one from the unseen moon. His first nocturne, The Stigmatisation of St. Francis, has a small camp-fire in the background and some illuminated clouds, but neither qualifies as a true light source. Thus The Taking of Christ was the single most important picture for the many northern followers of Caravaggio active in Rome. Caravaggio’s most important Italian follower, Bartolomeo Manfredi, also painted a closely related composition with a similar double light source, known only through copies and prints. In Caravaggio’s remarkable picture the figure holding the lantern is a self-portrait. This, of course, was not the first time Caravaggio had included his features, but it was only the second time he had included himself in a religious scene; he appears in The Martyrdom of St Matthew as part of the fleeing crowd. Perhaps, since Caravaggio portrayed himself illuminating the subject with a lantern, he wished the viewer to accept his depiction as an ‘eye-witness account’ and thus underscore both the truth and the realism of the scene. His self-portrait could be intended as an unusual way of affirming his famous comment about the importance of painting directly from the model. However, Caravaggio is known to have used several earlier sources for his composition, including a 1509 print by Albrecht Durer, and possibly a small Taking of Christ with the Malchus Episode by the early French Master of St. Giles. The latter uses a similar compact composition with an internal light source provided by a lantern held high. Giovanni Pietro Bellori later complained about the accuracy of Caravaggio’s interpretations when he pointed out that the fruit in the London Supper at Emmaus was out of season. Since that picture was also painted for Ciriaco Mattei, one can only wonder if the inclusion of a self-portrait in The Taking of Christ was Caravaggio’s response to the kinds of unusual demands that Mattei made upon him about how various themes were to be depicted. The self-portrait in The Taking of Christ may have been Caravaggio’s thinly disguised answer about how he preferred to work.” (The Genius of Rome 1592-1623, ed. Beverley Louise Brown, Royal Academy of Arts 2001)
“Caravaggio painted the Betrayal of Christ in 1602 for the prominent nobleman marchese Ciriaco Mattei, for whom he had executed The Supper at Emmaus approximately a year earlier. The painter was then 31 years old, and was enjoying his first great Roman success. He was living under the protection of Mattei’s brother, the devout Franciscan cardinal Girolamo Mattei, who may well have advised him on theological aspects in both paintings.
In Caravaggio’s composition, which is loosely based on a well-known print by Durer, Judas’ act of betrayal takes place, curiously, to one side, whole the pictorial field is dominated by the armour of the soldier in the foreground, who reaches forward past Judas to seize Christ by the throat. Above this figure, and almost hidden by his helmet, is a lantern held by the man reaching forward from the right, while on the left a young man flees with his cloak streaming behind him in a curve that contains and isolates the heads of Christ and his betrayer.
The moment Caravaggio has chosen to portray – that of Judas pulling Jesus towards him in an embrace, rather than the actual kiss itself – is unusual. of the four gospel accounts St. Mark’s tells us that Jesus went ‘straightaway to him, and saith, Master. master; and kissed him. And they laid their hands on him, and took him’ (Mark 14:45-46). Caravaggio shows Christ’s lips parted as if in speech, and it may be that he is following St. Matthew’s account, in which Jesus speaks to Judas after the kiss and before being seized by the soldiers (Matthew 26:47-50). Given the implied movement of the embrace, which suggests that the kiss has not yet taken place, it seems more likely that Caravaggio has taken his cue from St. Luke, who does not describe the kiss itself: ‘he that was called Judas, one of the twelve, went before [the multitude of soldiers], and drew near unto Jesus to kiss him. But Jesus said unto him, Judas, betrayest thou the son of man with a kiss?’ (Luke 22:47-48). If that is indeed the case, Caravaggio’s focus is on Christ’s bitter question. In any case, it is clear that he has taken different elements from the different accounts: St. John is the only evangelist to mention the torches and the lantern (John 18:3), while the fleeing figure to the left is mentioned only by St. Mark (14:51-2). This is a distillation of the sources, in which the artist has selected what is necessary for his expressive purposes, whose force and focus are far sharper than the conventional multi-figured compositions of this subject by his predecessors and contemporaries.
Still intently experimenting in this early phase with the expressive potential of light, Caravaggio makes the dark but shining armour and brilliant red breeches of the central soldier epitomise the physical violence that is about to overtake the resigned and agonised Jesus. The lantern behind his helmet can scarcely be the light source that creates the reflections on the inky metal. For Caravaggio’s artistic purposes it is the spectral quality of the undefined illumination – perhaps moonlight – which enters from outside the pictorial space and bathes the faces of Judas and Jesus that is of importance, not the verisimilitude of its origin. In the whirl of gestures, from the outstretched hand of the fleeing disciple, through the clutching grasp of Judas up to the hand holding the lantern, it is Christ’s knotted fingers, accentuated in the void below the soldier’s arm, that are the most prominent and the most carefully lit. The crisply delineated forms of the armour contrast with the softer folds of the passive Christ’s draperies. just as the coarse physiognomy of Judas is juxtaposed with the pallid features of Christ, whose eyes and mouth melt into shadow. The brutal energy of the group of figures at the right serves only to emphasise Jesus’ isolation even as he is embraced.” (Rembrandt/Caravaggio, ed. Duncan Bull, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam 2006)
“Again he moved in close and exploited to the utmost the panoramic intimacy of a three-quarter length horizontal canvas, filling the space with seven crowded figures cut off at the knee. It was a wonderfully fluent articulation of distinct individuals into the best action picture he ever did. Everybody was sweeping from right to left across the canvas, soldiers, onlookers, a panicking disciple, Judas himself lunging into Christ’s face with lips still puckered from the kiss – everyone except Christ himself, the one slight figure on the left who stemmed the surge. The painting was like a dynamic reworking of the group in Doubting Thomas, only this more complex cluster divided the canvas down the middle, into a right side of jostling armoured soldiery and darkness and a left side of three interlocked faces of Christ and disciples framed in strongly coloured drapery.
What held it together was the reaching figure of the helmeted and armoured soldier at the front, the great black shell of his shoulder catching a brilliant gleam of light in the very centre of the canvas, the iron-cased arm reaching over Judas’ and the heavy-mailed hand joining Judas’ grasping fingers to pull Christ into the centre of the picture. The soldiers were brutal and menacing but never inhuman. The elderly soldier with the straggly moustache and a badly rusted helmet, uselessly tugging at the fleeing disciple’s red cloak, might have been imagined by Cervantes, and his superficial likeness to the old soldier in the first Saul showed how much more deeply inhuman M’s gaze had become in a year and a half, how his human register had widened.
It was among the soldiers that M now placed himself, at the back of the crowd, peering over heads for a glimpse of the action, so that the upper part of his face was white in the light and the rest in shadow. He was no longer puffy and distraught, as he had seen himself in Matthew killed, no longer fleeing the violence, but newly young, eager, deep-eyed, tensed toward the human confusion, and holding a lantern above the faces in the dark. It was how he lit his models in the studio, hoisting a lantern overhead in the darkened room, and a way now of saying that this was how dark deeds at night were lit in real life. The lantern also illuminated M’s own artfulness, since the real light source, the source in the studio, was out of the picture. The real light was coming from elsewhere. Twenty seven years later the young Spanish painter Velazquez spent a year in Rome at the age M was when he did Christ taken, and his own later paintings showed he looked long and hard at M’s work. If Velazquez ever got to see Christ taken, he might have liked its painter’s wink at the irreducible artificiality of the real in art, winked back and stored the idea away for future use.” (M, Peter Robb, 1998)