My candidate for the greatest Christian painter in the history of the West is the seventeenth-century Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi, better known as “Caravaggio.”1 “Caravaggio” is actually the name of the place in Northern Italy where Merisi was born, or at least spent a good bit of his young life (historians are not agreed on this matter). Thus, “Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.” The artist sometimes signed his name that way, but among art historians he is known as just “Caravaggio.” Of all his paintings, my favorite is called variously “The Taking of Christ,” “The Betrayal of Christ,” “The Arrest of Christ,” or “The Kiss of Judas” and was painted by Caravaggio as a private commission for a man named Ciriaco Mattei, probably in 1602 or 1603. The painting’s subject matter, of course, is given in the New Testament texts that recount Judas’s betrayal of Jesus with a kiss. The painting was thought to have been lost for about four hundred years and was rediscovered in the early 1990s in a Jesuit house in Dublin, Ireland. The Jesuit brothers residing there thought that what they had in the house was a copy of the original Caravaggio done by the Dutch artist Gerard von Honthorst, but the painting was identified, again in the early 1990s, as an authentic Caravaggio by Sergio Benedetti, Senior Curator of the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. The painting is now on permanent loan to the Dublin gallery for general display. I have not seen the painting in that setting, but some years ago I had the opportunity to see the work in a special exhibit at the McMullen Museum of Boston College. People who know me know that I am not given typically to transcendent experiences, but seeing this painting was about as close to a transcendent experience as I am likely to get.
We should always resist the temptation to reduce a painting’s meaning to the artist’s biography, but in any interpretation of Caravaggio’s art, it is hard to neglect his life entirely. What about that life?2 When I lecture on Caravaggio, I sometimes say that we can think of him as the Bobby Knight of the seventeenth-century Italian art world. Those who know about the career of the fiery former basketball coach at Indiana University and Texas Tech will sense my intention in employing the analogy. Bobby Knight, of course, has been and still is commonly recognized as a basketball genius, but his public behavior also has been deplored as boorish, bullying, outrageous... “in your face,” one might say. Like Bobby Knight, Caravaggio was consistently “in your face” or, more accurately, in the face of his contemporaries. Though he was widely recognized, at least in certain significant quarters, as an artistic genius, he was also constantly in trouble, and the public records offer a litany of transgressions, including: throwing a plate of artichokes in a waiter’s face during a dispute about the food’s quality, carrying his sword in public without a license, drawing his sword against another man in a love dispute over a prostitute, throwing stones at his landlady’s window when she accused him of not paying his rent, harassing a woman and her daughter about some unidentified matter, writing and distributing verses mocking his rival contemporary artist Giovanni Baglione, an action for which Caravaggio was sued by Baglione for slander—and most disturbing of all, murdering a man in a fight over a tennis match. Because of the murder, Caravaggio fled Rome where he had lived for many years and had done his greatest work. He spent the rest of his life as a fugitive, in Naples, Sicily, and then Malta where he joined the Knights of Malta until he was expelled from the order and imprisoned after a conflict with another member. Eventually, he escaped prison and returned to Sicily and then to Naples, where he was horribly disfigured in a sword fight. He ended his life in commensurate fashion. Having just received a papal pardon for the murder, he was traveling north on the western coast of Italy toward Rome in a small boat with all his goods. Along the way, the boat pulled into a small port, and there Caravaggio was mistaken for another criminal and arrested. When the mistake was discovered, he was released only to find that his boat with all his worldly goods had left without him. He chased the boat on foot along the western coast until he died in pursuit, apparently of malaria.
So we are talking about a complex life, outstanding and outrageous. The complexity is captured ironically (at least for English speakers) in a phrase that appears in a contract for one of Caravaggio’s Roman commissions (Rowland 1999). The contract identifies the artist in Latin as “egregius in Urbe pictor,” which literally means “the outstanding painter in the city.” In Italian today the phrase would be “egregio… pittore,” but our English word derived from the Latin “egregius” no longer means, of course, outstanding in any positive sense. In English “egregious” suggests something that stands out in a bad sense—something flagrant, outrageous. So for those of us who think in English, the irony of the Latin identification is inescapable even if originally unintended. Caravaggio was the outstanding painter in the city of Rome but also the outrageous painter in the city. That Caravaggio himself sensed the outrageous character of his own life is suggested by the story that the artist would not take holy water in a Sicilian church “because it only absolved venial sins” and his sins were “all mortal” (Puglisi 1998, 253). Apart from that incident, we don’t have much external evidence either about Caravaggio’s actual religious convictions or about his attitudes toward his own spiritual condition. We can imagine that as a seventeenth-century Italian painter he held the convictions typically held by denizens of seventeenth-century Counter-Reformation Catholic Italy—even if a few of his paintings were seen by certain Catholic authorities as violating standards of religious and moral decorum. At any rate, as one scholar has put it, the best evidence of the artist’s religious or spiritual disposition is indeed given in the paintings themselves (Varriano 1999). After meditating on those paintings, I sense that Caravaggio did harbor deep Christian convictions, but that he did so with a bit of an attitude.
With all of that as background, let us return now to “The Taking of Christ.” Just to the left of center, of course, are the two main characters of the narrative. A balding Judas, garbed in the iconographically-traditional yellow, seems just to have planted the infamous kiss. Or perhaps he is just about to plant the kiss. In any event, he grips his victim from the viewer’s right with his left grubby hand (the grubbiness reflecting both Caravaggio’s relentless naturalism and his use of live models). Judas stares at Jesus, waiting, so it seems, uncertainly, anxiously, for some response from the man he is betraying. In Judas’s face, we detect perhaps the beginnings of the eventual despair that generates his suicide in one biblical account. Jesus, on the other hand, is no less than love crushed. His face, like Judas’s, illumined by a light source from the left, reveals a certain meditative calm, but signals also a kind of wearied spiritual deflation or resignation. The enmeshed fingers of his clasped hands now being pulled apart suggest a prayerful attitude broken by the onrush of violence. The exhausted sadness of his face, again, is so heavy that it seems to bear the burden of all the world’s exhaustion in its totality of persecuted moments. Three ominous figures (either Roman soldiers or temple police) break in from the viewer’s right and seem to concentrate in their darkened, armored presences all of the world’s evil force in one consummate moment of violence. At the far left, a figure flees in horror. He suggests the young man identified by the Synoptic Gospels as the Jesus follower who is grabbed by the arresting agents but who finally escapes running off naked, leaving behind his only garment, a linen cloth—though Caravaggio departs from literal depiction by indicating that the man will have something left to wear even after he has lost his flowing red robe. There is also a tradition of biblical interpretation that associates the fleeing figure with St. John the Evangelist, and Caravaggio affirms the association by depicting the young man without facial hair, just as St. John is typically depicted in Christian iconographic tradition. Art historians commonly note that the young man’s horrorstricken head seems to emerge Siamese-like from the back of Jesus’s own, standing symbolically as a double of Jesus’s psyche and suggesting thereby that underneath Jesus’s calm, if saddened, visage is a deep sense of horror over this act of betrayal. As the action rushes narratively from right to left the subjects are thrust aesthetically from the picture’s depth forward crowding the space at the picture plane (in the viewer’s face, as it were). Indeed, the armored plate of the soldier’s left shoulder and upper arm seems to burst through the picture plane invading the viewer’s space. The forward thrust of the subject matter is heightened by chiaroscuro; the dark background, that is to say, pushes the action forward into the viewer’s space. Characteristically, Caravaggio is insistent, confrontational. His manipulation of space challenges the viewer with the subject matter.
I have left for last the curious dark, bearded, un-helmeted figure to the far right holding a lantern, craning, rubber-necking upward and toward the left, struggling to see, or to illuminate what he dimly sees. There is no explicit biblical warrant for this figure though there are aesthetic antecedents. As noted by art historian Catherine Puglisi, previous visual renderings of the betrayal scene (e.g., Durer’s) depict a lantern-bearing figure at the periphery (Puglisi 1998, 220). What is striking about Caravaggio’s figure is that in a painting dominated by chiaroscuro (or light-dark contrast) the figure seems with his own lantern to cast no light at all—except perhaps on his own face. Again, the painting’s principal light source comes mysteriously from the left outside the picture frame. This flood of light serves to heighten dramatic intensity and three-dimensionality, but its mysterious source also conveys a sense of spiritual or supernatural presence without disrupting the naturalism of the rendering. Yet, back to the lantern-bearing figure who casts no light and to the most intriguing thing of all. Art historians are largely agreed that this figure is none other than Caravaggio himself. In this account, the artist has put himself in the painting, and he has depicted himself as one straining to see, to comprehend this remarkable event—as one who tries to cast light but fails. True enlightenment, true understanding, has another source. Is this Caravaggio’s judgment on his own limitations as artist to capture the full significance of this deeply spiritual event? Perhaps. Certain commentators (e.g., Varriano 1999, 202) have suggested as much.
Actually, I am not entirely convinced by the art-historical arguments that the lantern-bearing figure in this painting is a self-portrait. As opposed to other Caravaggio paintings where self-portraits are identified, there is no external evidence in this case that the artist intended such, and while a character looking like this and drawing our attention in this way appears in other paintings of the artist, there are significant physical differences between the characters and available portraits of Caravaggio. At the same time, I can understand why historians have been prompted to make the identification. The figure stands not as a principal agent in the events but as an onlooker, a bystander—and an artist is an onlooker, a bystander of sorts.
Yet there is another way of looking at the matter. The figure is also a bystander in the sense that he simply stands by. He looks, cranes, stretches, rubber-necks, almost luridly at this awful event—but does nothing. He does not intervene. He raises no questions, issues no protests. He looks innocent enough, just a curious passerby trying to take a peek. He intentionally does no harm. He just stands by and gawks, just as we stand by and gawk—certainly at the painting. Caravaggio has thrust us into the scene with consummate artistic skill, yet we are still onlookers. We stand by and gawk, again, at the painting, but like the lantern-bearing figure on the right we also stand by and gawk at this event of betrayal and more generally we stand by and gawk luridly when the subject matter of the painting, the betrayal of the innocent, is endlessly reenacted in the history of the world. Of course, we distance ourselves from the world’s Judases. We actively intend no harm. We just look, try to see, try to understand, and do nothing.
Church historians often note that seventeenth-century Counter-Reformation Italy was a culture suffused with the penitential spirit and that this spirit marked the art of the period. I read Caravaggio’s “The Taking of Christ” as an expression of that penitential spirit. The painting invites us to identify with the lantern bearing figure on the right, to consider the various ways we stand by and do nothing when the innocent are betrayed, to recognize our complicity with Judas even as we are distanced from him. Like Peter who denied knowing Christ, we may not actively betray the innocent, but we refuse to combat betrayal in a vigorous way. To be blunt, we are, more often than not, cowards—when the innocent are persecuted, when injustice is done. Caravaggio’s painting invites us to consider the various ways this is so. Indeed, as I recall, a placard at the Boston exhibit noted that the light-reflecting armor plate seeming to break into the viewer’s space suggests a mirror inviting the observer’s self-reflection in a way consistent with mirror iconography in the Counter-Reformation art world. More generally, the painting is a kind of call to self-conviction and penance, just as it may have been for the painter himself a kind of penitential exercise.
I sense that Caravaggio for all his braggadocio was a man well-attuned to his own failings and the failings of the world. I sense also that he was a man well-attuned to the various evasions, self-deceptions and hypocrisies by which the world covers its failings, well attuned to the world’s consistent efforts to get to Easter without passing through Good Friday. And he was particularly well-positioned to see all of this because his own life was a kind of Good Friday.
Edmund N. Santurri is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Director of the Ethical Issues and Normative Perspectives Program at St. Olaf College.
1. What follows is the latest version of a meditation originally delivered as a chapel talk at St. Olaf College some years ago.
2. My account of Caravaggio’s life and work draws, in varying degree, on the commentary and analysis of prominent art historians, especially. Friedlaender 1955, Graham-Dixon 2010, Hibbard 1985, Langdon 1999, Puglisi 1998, Rowland 1999, Seward 1998, Varriano 1999 and 2006, and Wilson-Smith 1998.
Friedlaender, Walter. Caravaggio Studies. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1955.
Graham-Dixon, Andrew. Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. W. W. Norton and Company, 2010.
Hibbard, Howard. Caravaggio. London: Westview, 1985.
Langdon, Helen. Caravaggio: A Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Puglisi, Catherine. Caravaggio. London: Phaidon, 1998.
Rowland, Ingrid D. “The Real Caravaggio.” New York Review of Books. Vol. 46, No. 15 (October 7, 1999).
Seward, Desmond. Caravaggio: A Passionate Life. New York: William Morrow, 1998.
Varriano, John. Caravaggio: The Art of Realism. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.
_____. “Caravaggio and Religion.” In Saints and Sinners: Caravaggio and the Baroque Image. Franco Mormando, ed. Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts: McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 1999.
Wilson-Smith, Timothy. Caravaggio. London: Phaidon, 1998.