Picturing the Passion: ‘Taking of Christ’ by Caravaggio (1602)

Picturing the Passion: ‘Taking of Christ’ by Caravaggio (1602)

 This is the story of betrayal, crime, murder and mystery. The protagonists vary; their passion prolongs!

We begin with the artist himself. The great and brilliant Caravaggio goes down in history as the legendary bad boy.  His life was termed turbulent; his attitude – mad, bad and perilous. He lived by the sword and was apparently prosecuted for having carried one in public without a license. His litany of infringements include throwing a plate of artichokes in the waiter’s face, casting a sword against another man in a love dispute, hurling stones at his landlady and the worst of all murdering a man over a tennis match brawl.

With the eventual death sentence hanging round his neck, he flees from Rome to Naples, Sicily and Malta. Thanks to his powerful Roman lobby, in the summer of 1610 he receives a pardon for his crime. As he sails northwards towards Rome the news of his sudden spasmodic death spreads throughout the region. The cause was cited to be fever but later argued to be a murder. The confusion and mystery surrounding his life and death is also reflected in his painting, ‘Taking of Christ’.

It is a moment of betrayal; a sellout of loyalty. Caravaggio captures this chaos with utmost integrity. In the dense darkness of the night a distressed Christ craves comfort.  He battles His spiritual agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. However the waiting trio can’t keep from sleep. Suddenly the stillness is shattered and the darkness is driven by leaping flames of torches and lanterns. As the sound of marching feet and clanking armour draws near, terror evades the now wide eyed apostles.

In the midst of clamouring confusion a familiar figure walks up to embrace his motionless and defenceless Master. His treacherous kiss recalled the agreement, ‘The one I kiss is the man. Arrest him and take him away under guard.’  Garbed in traditional yellow, Judas grips Jesus with his grubby left hand and stares at Him in perplexed anxiety. He almost fears Christ response. Ill at ease, his heart jerked in a sudden realisation of the stain and tarnished name he left to history. That was the beginning of a remorse that eventually led to a self murder.

Christ on the other hand is crushed and exhausted. His brows furrow and eyes down turn for he cannot bear to meet his traitor’s gaze. As the moon bears witness to this harrowing blow, Christ clasps his hands in prayer and humility. The gesture is strong yet sensitive. The intertwining of hands also serves as a reminder of the bound feet of an innocent lamb being taken to slaughter. 

It is a delicate moment frozen in frame amidst a frenzied horde. The beloved apostle, who had embraced Christ at the dining table a few hours ago, now flees in fear. Shrieking into the deep dark, his eyes bulge at the strange turn of events. The middle guard grabs his blood red robe which interestingly covers the demeanour of both Jesus and Judas. It announces their imminent death.

Three mechanical soldiers in shiny steeled armour and helmets complete the image. They are the Roman soldiers assigned to arrest Jesus. Their gleaming metallic covering stands in contrast to the vulnerable victim. The light-reflecting metal suggests a mirror inviting the viewer to self-reflection, an iconography of the Counter Reformation.

The whole scene is set against gripping darkness. No landscape; no architecture. Caravaggio strips out the non-essentials to draw us to the incredulity of the moment. His monumental figures are life like. They almost fall off the canvas into our space. The observers are called to be participators. This was the essence of the Baroque!

The secret player here is light. Notice the dark headed bystander at the far right of the painting. He cranes and stretches inorder to bravely witness the divine tragedy. He illuminates the scene through his Chinese lantern. Quite literally! for the figure is considered to be the self-portrait of the 31 year old artist himself! An artist who possessed a pervasive way of painting darkness and through darkness pursuing us onto the journey of light – both artistically and metaphorically!

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557

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