The Taking of Christ

Caravaggio
National Gallery, Dublin

This colourful Caravaggio of Judas kissing Jesus enveloped in the dark armour of the arresting soldier is a startling combination of glossy black, searing white and coral red. At the back Caravaggio himself holds the lantern which creates the stage show. This is all theatre; and Caravaggio with his nearly acrylic sharp colours could produce a riveting show, with the suspension of the moment.

As Francine Prose has written in Caravaggio, Painter of Miracles:

“Inscribed in Christ’s and Judas’s paired faces is the perfect comprehension of everything that this kiss will mean for themselves and for mankind.” (p. 83)

This painting has been restored to vibrancy, old varnish, smoke, dampness were defeated by an Italian restorer, at the Dublin Art Gallery in 1991.

The Taking of ChristJonathan Harr’s book traces the painting. The actual painting was identified as the work of another artist since about 1793.

At the time of its creation it was attributed to Caravaggio and owned by a Roman family of immense wealth. In 1793 the inventory of the family’s paintings attributed the painting to another artist. In 1802 the painting was sold to a Scotsman, attributed to a Dutch artist. The Scottish family sold it at an Edinburgh auction in 1921 for perhaps 8 Guineas but the buyer was a mystery.

The buyer gave it to the St. Ignatius Residence for Roman Catholic priests. In August of 1990 the Residence housed 14 priests in a house but ten minutes away from the National Gallery of Dublin. The rector wished some of his paintings which were known as “some dark copies of old masters” should be evaluated.

An Italian restorer of art saw a large painting in an ornate gilt frame. Harr describes his first viewing (p. 149):

“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 Benadetti’s (the restorer) eye told him that beneath the dirt and varnish it was probably coral red. He judged that it had not been cleaned or refined in more than a century.”

Benedetti and the Gallery took the painting for cleaning. For months throughout the slow process of cleaning, other documentary researches of the painting’s provenance and mis-attribution were carefully documented. The Gallery officials concluded it really was a Caravaggio but they had to be sure. A year passed.

Finally, in March of 1992 the Gallery was sure, the vanished Caravaggio had returned due to detective work by numerous researchers in Italy and Ireland.

A discovery of a lost masterpiece in today’s world is a rarity. Added to this is the sheer electricity of the painting: attack, stealth, resignation, horror, duplicity, treachery and a sparkling theatre stage.

Jonathan Harr
The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece
Random House 2005

On August 2, 2008, a story from Odessa, Ukraine: “Staff at the Museum of Western and Eastern Art in the Black Sea port of Odessa discovered the painting, The Taking of Christ, or The Kiss of Judas, missing, cut from its frame …”

Art experts in the Ukraine lamented the theft of Caravaggio’s work as a “cultural disaster” for former Soviet States.

What is this about? Surely this must have been a huge issue for Harr’s book. Wouldn’t you first go and check it out? Is it the same? Is the Irish one a copy?

The Globe story said, “The painting had been brought by a Russian ambassador to France and presented as a gift to a Russian prince before being turned over to the Odessa Museum last century.”

Doubts have been expressed about the painting’s authenticity but Soviet art experts in the 1950s confirmed the work was in fact by Michelangelo Merish da Caravaggio.” (Sure, sure, a Russian expert in the fifties is going to say — maybe this isn’t the real thing?)

I dive back to Harr’s book:

Caravaggio was one of the most copied of all painters, and The Taking of Christ was, as Roberto Longhi had discovered, one of the most frequently copied works. Most were of low quality, like the one Longhi had found in London in the 1930s. But one very good version had surfaced in Odessa, Russia. A Russian art historian had published photographs of that painting more than thirty years earlier, back in 1956, advancing it as the original. A Russian count had acquired it in Paris sometime before 1870 but its earlier history was largely unknown. Longhi and other Caravaggio experts had studied the photographs. All had agreed that it was a very good painting. A few had even embraced it as the original. But without inspecting it “nose to the canvas,” as Denis Mahon would say, Most Caravaggio scholars were not willing to make a definitive judgment one way or the other. And it was difficult to inspect close up. The trip was long and complicated, requiring visa negotiations with the Soviet authorities and then several connecting flights to Odessa.

Longhi, for one, had remained unconvinced by the Odessa version. He believed until his death that the original was probably somewhere in Scotland, masquerading as a Honthorst. If that was true, and the Odessa version really was just a very good copy, good enough to give some experts pause, then it might be the work of Viovanni di Attili. Like the copyist of the Doria St. John, Di Attili had enjoyed unfettered access to the original [The Lost Painting, Jonathan Harr, Random House, New York, 2005, pp. 92-93]

That’s it. The book, written in 2005, not then impossible to visit Odessa.

My lawyer’s mind triggers, “Maybe, just maybe they (the author and experts) were sure it was phony.” A lawyer like me said, “Careful, someone may sue for slandering the title of the painting so don’t be so strong on it. Remember the case of the Leonardo da Vinci Bella Ferroncire in the Louvre and Duveau” (see my Louvre section).

The Globe story has obviously reproduced the image of the Dublin Caravaggio as it is spot on my large print of it. Of course Reuters would most probably not have an image of the Odessa ‘Caravaggio’.

Certainly Harr’s answer on the blogs is much more assertive than his book:

Dear Subscribers,

There seems to be some question about the authenticity of the alleged Caravaggio painting recently stolen from a museum in Odessa, Ukraine.

To clear thing[s] up, we contacted several experts including Jonathan Harr, author of “The Lost Painting: the story of the discovery of the original “Taking of Christ” by Caravaggio.

For some top notch insight, about this painting, here is his reply …,

Dear Jonathan Sazonoff:

Thanks for the notice of the theft — I don’t know that I would have heard about it otherwise.

The Odessa painting is not Caravaggio’s original. No art historian, no Caravaggio expert of repute, considers it original, especially after the discovery of the Dublin painting and its incontrovertible provenance, directly back to the Mattei family, which commissioned it from Caravaggio in 1602.

The Odessa painting is, however, a very good copy. Its early provenance — pre 1860 — is not known, but given its quality, some art historians speculate that it might be the authorized copy made by the younger brother of Ciriaco Mattei, who had commissioned the original. The account books of Asdrubale, Ciriaco’s brother, record a payment of 12 scudi in 1626 for a copy of the Taking by an otherwise unknown artist named Giovanni di Attili.

There are at least 12 known copies of the Taking, nearly all of inferior quality. Given that the Odessa painting is the best, there’s some logic to inferring that it was the authorized copy, that the copyist would have had unrestricted access to the original and could have literally traced the figures onto a new canvas.

Anyhow — I hope they find it.

Best regards,
Jonathan Harr