Listening to Art

03.07: Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ

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Listening to Art, by William Denton.

Volume three, number seven: The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio.

Hello, and welcome to Listening to Art. I’m William Denton.

The incredible story of how this painting vanished from history and then was found in Dublin in 1990 is given in The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr, a book I highly recommend. It is filled with fascinating detail about art history, research, archives and conservation.

The painting was done in 1602 for Ciriaco Mattei, and stayed in the Mattei family for two centuries, during which it became attributed to another artist. It was sold to a Scotsman in 1802, whose family sold it at auction in 1921, still under the wrong name. Somehow, either at that auction or soon after, it was acquired by Dr. Marie Lea-Wilson, an Irish pediatrician. In the 1930s she donated it to the Jesuits with thanks for help a priest had given her after the death of her husband. The painting ended up in a Jesuit residence in the centre of Dublin, near the National Gallery of Ireland.

In his book Jonathan Harr begins the story of the painting by describing the research done by two young Italian art historians, Francesca Cappalletti and Laura Testa, who tracked the painting through to Scotland but hit a dead end. Then he moves to Sergio Benedetti, an Italian art historian and conservator—and, as it happens, expert on Caravaggio—working at the National Gallery, who in August 1990 accompanied the assistant director, Brian Kennedy, to the Jesuit residence to look at some old paintings the priests were interested in having cleaned.

Harr tells the story (pp. 146–149):

They walked past St. Stephen’s Green and turned onto Lower Leeson Street, a quiet, well-kept thoroughfare lined with old Georgian row houses in brick and stone, each four stories tall. The door of 35 Lower Leeson Street was painted bright blue and lace curtains hung in the windows. Father Noel Barber greeted Benedetti and Kennedy and welcomed them in. He explained that they were in the midst of cleaning and refurbishing the house—pulling up old carpeting, polishing the floors, and painting the walls. They had taken down all the paintings and moved them to the library on the second floor. He led the way up the stairs.

The library was a large book-lined room overlooking the street. Benedetti saw seven or eight paintings of varying sizes propped up against the bookcases. His eyes were drawn immediately to the largest one, in an ornate gilt frame. He stared at it for a long moment, and then forced himself to look away to the other paintings. He knelt before each, his eyes registering the details, but his mind remained with the large painting in the gilt frame. He saw several early twentieth-century Irish paintings of little consequence, and an Italian work, possibly sixteenth century but provincial and clumsily executed. All rubbish, he thought to himself. He made no comment. Behind him, he heard Kennedy and Father Barber talking.

Finally he turned his attention to the large painting. It was dark, the entire surface obscured by a film of dust, grease and soot. The varnish had turned a yellowish brown, giving the flesh tones in the faces and hands a tobacco-like hue. The robe worn by Christ had turned the colour of dead leaves, although Benedetti’s eyes told him that beneath the dirt and varnish it was probably a coral red. He could see that the canvas had gone a little slack in the frame. He judged that it had not been cleaned or relined in more than a century.

He came close to the painting, squatting on his haunches before it, his face inches from the surface. It was definitely a seventeenth-century work, he thought. The craquelure, the network of fine hairline cracks, was just was he would expect in a painting almost four centuries old. All in all, the picture appeared to be in rather good shape. He could see only a few areas where the paint surface had cupped slightly and flaked, the worst on the right edge of the canvas, on the back of the second soldier. But the most important areas, around the hands and faces, seemed free of damage.

He examined the features of Christ and of Judas, the eyes and the ears, and the details of the hands. Could it possibly be? he asked himself. He reached out and touched the surface lightly with the pads of his fingers, feeling the texture of the paint, the slight give of the canvas. If it is not by him, Benedetti thought, it is the best possible copy.

On the way back to the gallery, Brian Kennedy noticed a change in Benedetti’s demeanour. The restorer hadn’t uttered a word since they’d left the Jesuit residence, and he was walking at a fast and determined pace.

“Sergio, what’s up?” Kennedy asked.

“The picture is possibly much more important than they think,” replied Benedetti.

“Why? What do you think it is?”

“I think it might be by Caravaggio.”

Sergio Benedetti died in January 2018.

This is a painting, oil on canvas, 169.5 cm wide by 133.5 cm high.

Now let’s listen to The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio, recorded at the National Gallery of Ireland, in Dublin, on 22 December 2017.

That was The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio. I hope you enjoyed listening to it as much as I did.

For more information and links to things I’ve mentioned, please visit listeningtoart.org.

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Bibliography

All web sites accessed as of 13 August 2018.

  • Harr, Jonathan. The Lost Painting. New York: Random House, 2005.
  • National Gallery of Ireland. The Taking of Christ.
  • Wikipedia contributors. Caravaggio. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
  • Wikipedia contributors. Sergio Benedetti. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.