The Taking of Christ and the Many Sins of Caravaggio

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Caravaggio is now known both for his excellent uses of tenebrism and chiaroscuro, as well as his often-graphic use of realism. However, much of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s work was forgotten until the mid-twentieth century. Some of his work was eventually re-discovered much later, such as The Taking of Christ which was rediscovered only in 1993. How is it possible that such an incredibly talented artist had essentially been forgotten for hundreds of years? Perhaps the easiest answer is Caravaggio was not a nice man. He was quick to verbal or physical assault, a frequenter of brothels and prostitutes, and eventually even a murderer leading to his exile from Rome. Also, given the religious subject matter of many of his paintings, this presented an unusual dichotomy that many at the time may have wanted to separate themselves from. The history of Caravaggio is as interesting, if not more, than the actual paintings of the man. His life, like many of his paintings, consisted of darkness, violence, and pain. Michelangelo Merisi was born in 1571 to Fermo and Lucia Merisi in Lombardy, Italy. Growing up, his family split their time between the city of Milan and the rural area of Caravaggio. When Michelangelo was five, the bubonic plague had broken out, centered in Milan. By 1577, the Arisi family had relocated to Caravaggio permanently to try and escape the horrors of the plague. However, on 20 October 1577, tragedy struck the Merisi family. Fermo had died from the plague, quickly followed by Michelangelo’s uncle, grandfather, and grandmother. At the tender age of six, the child who would become Caravaggio had lost almost every male family member within the span of a day.

By 1578, the plague was gone, and a fifth of the population of Milan with it. Six years later, Michelangelo signed a four-year apprenticeship with Simone Peterzano. During this time, Michelangelo learned much of the foundational skills an artist of the time would learn: how to create and blend colors, how to draw, etc. This is around the time his history becomes somewhat blurry and undocumented. By 1592, he was 21 and had moved to Rome under somewhat suspicious circumstances (some scholars have speculated he killed a man in Milan and had served a year in prison). Over the next few years, Michelangelo would change his name to Caravaggio to differentiate himself from the Renaissance artist. From 1592 to 1602, Caravaggio had painted forty-one paintings. Considering the level of detail that went into his paintings, this was a herculean feat. His forty-second painting, created in 1602, would be called The Taking of Christ and would later become one of his most admired works.

The Taking of Christ, like many of Caravaggio’s other works, was a departure from the way many other artists had portrayed the betrayal of Christ by Judas. Many other painters or artists had depicted the act of Christ being arrested with massive landscapes along with a great number of individuals contained within their artwork. In Caravaggio’s rendition, it is a much smaller scene, which emotes a more personal narrative of the deception and the ultimate betrayal carried out by Judas. Now standing as perhaps Caravaggio’s most famous work, the painting is a large size at 52.5 inches by 66.7 inches and is oil on canvas. The work was the last in a commission of three paintings by the Roman Marquis Ciriaco Mattei, a nobleman. As with most of his other paintings, the lighting, or lack of it, is on full display. His mastery of tenebrism and chiaroscuro would be imitated though rarely replicated with the same level of his craftsmanship. A viewer sees a lantern being held by someone (many suggest that this was a self-portrait of Caravaggio) at the far side of the painting. There is, of course, no way this could be lighting the entire scene, leading one to believe the light to be coming from the moon. This was yet another departure from other artist portrayals of the scene, as many of those were day time scenes.

The viewer will first be drawn to the spectacularly rendered plate armor of a soldier, his left arm and hand outstretched toward Jesus’ throat with perhaps a sense of foreshadowing of what is to come. The soldiers are stoic, standing for the “implacable forces unleashed by the act of betrayal.” Yet, being rushed by soldiers, Jesus does not fight, rather conceding to his foretold fate. The only sense of resistance can be read upon Jesus’ face as he attempts to pull away from Judas’ kiss on his cheek. “The one I shall kiss is the man; seize him and lead him away safely' (Mark 14:44) Judas identified Jesus by this act to the soldiers for the promise of monetary gain. This kiss is the focal point of the painting, as it shows the foremost act of betrayal. A pained expression can be read upon Judas’ face by his raised eyebrows. Conceivably saddest of all, Judas knows he has done wrong and grasps Jesus’ hand as if to apologize for his treachery.

Moving outward, a disciple is seen running away, arms flailing, feasibly toward Heaven. It’s easy to conceive the feelings Caravaggio was trying to convey; one of an utter sense of sadness, surprise, and fear of what had been foretold. Indeed, Caravaggio created an incredibly powerful composition, frozen at the exact moment of Christ’s betrayal. It’s a work that is filled with emotion, deception, and violence, all things that Caravaggio was intimately familiar with. For an artist that frequently was commissioned to create historical religious works, Caravaggio was not an outwardly religious man. Caravaggio had been accused of being a heretic, but there’s an interesting story that shows he may have pondered what effects the life he had led would ultimately have upon him. Francesco Susinno, an early biographer of Caravaggio, tells a tale of an introspective soul who may fear what is to come during a visit to a Messinese church: “He refused Holy Water on the grounds it was only good for washing away venial sins. ‘Mine are all mortal’ were Caravaggio’s words, hardly those of a man untroubled by questions of salvation or damnation.” To be fair, this story comes from a manuscript, “The Lives of Messinese Painters” written by Sussino based on interviews with other painters in 1724, many years after Caravaggio’s untimely death in 1610, so it’s not first-hand telling. In fact, there’s not much, if any documentation on Caravaggio’s exact belief system, though he was baptized as a child.

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Caravaggio was an incredibly popular artist painting these amazing religious depictions of events from the Bible in an immensely interesting time for religion and art. The Counter-Reformation period of Roman Catholicism after the Council of Trent and the early Baroque style of art were colliding. The Counter-Reformation was in response to the Protestant Reformation, which rejected Catholic art infuriating Catholics. To “counter”, Catholic leadership launched a campaign that would indeed become the Counter-Reformation period. The developments within Catholicism inspired artists such as Caravaggio and others to produce paintings not only in a more realistic way, but also in an emotional way. This movement away from the abstract or the stylized would go on to be known as naturalism.

It is generally agreed upon that Caravaggio’s paintings essentially embodied the issues being debated by the Catholic church during this time of change. Garnering many commissions by churches and religious leaders alike (though some of his works were ultimately rejected), word began to spread about Caravaggio within the church. The Catholic church thought so highly of the artist that they knighted him within the Knights of Malta, an incredible honor.

It is therefore somewhat ironic that someone that could create such wonderful and powerful pieces of religious art could be a criminal, but that is indeed what Caravaggio was. Not only equipped with a short and ill-temper, he was rarely seen without his sword. In his time, if you were to carry a sword, you were to have a license to carry it. Not possessing a license and frequently stopped for this offense, Caravaggio would use his celebrity or name-drop nobility he knew. It has also been speculated during the time around in which he created The Taking of Christ that he was a pimp and that he was wandering the streets at night “protecting his women.

It is also around this time that began the downfall of the great artist, Caravaggio. Historically, scholars offer many different accounts of the duel between he and one Ranuccio Tomassoni, but the following is known: on 28 May 1606, Caravaggio killed Ranuccio in a swordfight on a tennis court. Caravaggio himself was injured and after the fight and fled from Rome. Later, he was issued a notice to appear before the court but never showed. Interestingly, there were at least eight witnesses and all but one (who was in jail from the incident only because he was so grievously wounded he could not flee) fled Rome as well. Ultimately, Caravaggio would be banned from Rome and became subject to “bando capitale”, what we would call a death sentence today, with one major difference: Anyone who lived in the Papal States (which was most of modern-day Italy) had the right to kill Caravaggio on-sight and would be rewarded to do so.

Exiled, Caravaggio bounced around different towns over the next four years, ultimately landing in Malta, a sovereign and relatively safe place to stay. He still worked; it was during this time of exile that he painted The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. However, during this time, Caravaggio assaulted another Knight, leading to his expulsion from the Knights of Malta and a jail sentence. Caravaggio being Caravaggio, escaped from prison and fled again, this time to Sicily. It was there he was ambushed and left with his face disfigured in 1609, a likely retaliation for his assault of the high-ranking Knight. Ever fearful, Caravaggio tried everything he could think of to try and receive a pardon from the Pope for his killing of Ranuccio. He sent paintings of his to those that knew the Pope, hoping they would convince the Pope to pardon the artist. Ultimately, Carravaggio would die in 1610 never having been pardoned, forever left with a tarnish upon his legacy of incredible art.

The impact Caravaggio had upon other painters and artists is impressive. After his death, the so-called “Caravaggisti” continued his tradition of highly dramatic, intense, and often bloody paintings using tenebrism at the forefront of their art. One incredibly famous painter would emerge from this group: Artemesia Gentileschi who would go on to have an incredibly successful career herself as a painter using a style Caravaggio essentially developed himself. Indeed, many artists have been influenced by Caravaggio including Rubens, Rembrandt, and Velazquez.

Love him or hate him, Caravaggio was a master painter and he paved the way for many future artists with his unique and masterful use of tenebrism and eye for the dramatic. There are still so many questions about Caravaggio, some that may never be answered. Some questions lead to even more questions. For example, the question posed in the opening- How could some of Caravaggio’s greatest works be forgotten for so long? Does this mean there are even more works of incredible art out there, just waiting to be discovered? Perhaps time will only tell.


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  3. Caravaggio Paintings List | Caravaggio Gallery. 2019. Caravaggiogallery.Com. Accessed November 12.
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  6. Jones, Pamela. The Age of Caravaggio: Early Modern Catholicism. Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 86, no. 341 (1997): 33-42.
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