Painting a human tragedy: Caravaggio in Dublin
Last week saw me at the Society for Renaissance Studies International Conference at Trinity College, Dublin. It was a successful event with many stimulating papers – I particularly enjoyed the session on Natural Disasters organised by Trevor Dean of Roehampton. However good a conference, one always finds some time to escape and explore and, though I have been to Dublin several times to work with the manuscripts and teach palaeography workshops, I have never visited the National Gallery, to which I made a pilgrimage on the Friday, only to be lured back there the next day.
It is an interesting collection with some striking images but the one which held me under its spell was Caravaggio’s Taking of Christ. Caravaggio has the ability to see afresh, to alter – in every sense – the viewer’s perspective. When I am in Rome, each time I try to see the Conversion of Saint Paul in Santa Maria del Popolo; the Taking of Christ has the same arresting quality.
The action depicts the moment that Judas kisses Jesus, but hardly has his lips touched his master’s cheek than the soldier grabs his prisoner by the shoulder. There is a powerful dynamism to the picture, a sense of hurtling motion that pushes the subjects off-centre, and pulls the viewer with it. At the centre of the painting is the armour of the soldier with his arm outstretched, glistening in the moonlight.
But the fascination for me about this painting is the depiction of the central character, Judas Iscariot. Christ, it must be said, is a pallid, nearly sepulchral, figure, beside a Judas who is depicted with care for his humanity. This Judas’ best days have passed, he is corpulent and balding. And, with the veins raised on the hand which grips Jesus, he is stressed, conscious of what he is doing. Caravaggio brings home to us that this image depicts the tragedy of two men, a double tragedy of which the Son of God was surely aware, as he knits together his hands, sorrowful at what is unfolding.
It is well-known that Caravaggio adds another feature to the painting, a self-portrait. He is at the right, balanced against the fleeing and screaming disciple at the extreme left. He crowds in with the soldiers, holding above their heads a lamp which, however, proves ineffectual: it sheds no light on the event. So, this artist, remembered for his raucous sins as well as for his painterly skill, places himself among those who have made Christ suffer, and modestly implies that he has no insight into the event – a modesty which is undercut by the piercing revelation that he provides.