>The events of the Passion and Death of Jesus have been portrayed many times in the history of art. Rather than reproduce the rather lengthy Gospel reading for today’s service – no actual masses are celebrated today – I would direct the reader here, to reflect on the texts. Because so many images flood into our minds when we read this story, I want to focus briefly on one, thanks to an article that was recently sent to me by The American Papist.
Back in August 2008 a work purportedly by Caravaggio, known as “The Taking of Christ”, was stolen from The Museum of Western and Eastern Art in Odessa, Ukraine. Somehow it seems unfortunately appropriate that a painting about the act of a man who stole from Jesus and the other Apostles, as the Gospels tell us Judas did from time to time, was itself stolen. While an unfortunate loss to the collection, it should be noted that this particular museum does have a tendency to raise to definite attribution works which some art historians find questionable, as I have reported upon previously. Most art historians believe that the Odessa painting is not, in fact, the real McCoy, but rather a copy, and that the original hangs in the National Gallery in Dublin.
However, one can imagine the curator’s shock upon learning that this painting may have been put up for sale at an online auction site in Moscow. The authorities were summoned, although the whereabouts of the painting have not yet been reported. Art theft even in today’s digital age is far more common than many people realize. During my time studying at Sotheby’s, I was fortunate enough to visit the Art Loss Register, as well as to attend lectures by some of their experts, and a visit to their web site will provide readers with some amazing information about the number of important artworks whose current whereabouts remain unknown.
Regardless of which painting is the true Caravaggio, the power of the image itself is undeniable. At the far left a young man runs away, as his cloak is snatched at by one of the guards coming to arrest Jesus. Some art historians have identified this as St. John, although I do question whether it is not, in fact, supposed to be St. Mark, the young man who is described as having run away naked from the scene. On the right, a group of virtually faceless soldiers closes in on their prize; the youngest of whom, holding a lantern, is supposedly a self-portrait by Caravaggio.
In this depiction of the betrayal of all betrayals, we see a saddened but resigned Christ, and a buffoon-like Judas. We do not see the source of the illumination which has flooded into the picture like a police searchlight, leaving the background of the Mount of Olives in complete darkness. If we stand back for a moment, the amount of color in this nighttime scene – bright red, royal blue, salmon, burgundy, mossy green – is rather surprising.
Just as at this moment the Apostles suddenly realize the identity of the betrayer among them, and their eyes and minds come into focus like the proverbial lights coming on upstairs, so too does the viewer share that realization. For like it or not, at times the betrayer is not Judas, but ourselves. Caravaggio painting himself into this picture as one of the active participants, rather than simply standing off to the side as an observer, is further proof of this, if it were needed. Our willfulness has led to this precise moment in history, and what will come after it.
Though I do not blog on the weekends, far be it from me to leave you, gentle reader, on a sorrowful note, even on this sorrowful day. Remember that there is no joy of Easter Sunday without the sorrow of the Good Friday that comes just before it. We have reflected a great deal this week on these virtual pages with respect to the role of Judas, but we must not follow his example and give up hope, no matter what we have done in the past, or what we may do in the future. To that end we must continue to hope in the resurrection and the life that is to come, a hope possible because of the glorious events of this Holy Week.
National Gallery of Ireland