I have a confession: I’m a history of art student and a Christian, and I don’t particularly like religious art. I find it either timid or grossly ostentatious, and on both accounts not reflective of the faith I have. However I’ve found a painting that gives me inspiration to believe.
Caravaggio’s ‘The Taking of Christ’ is beautiful and meaty. This all-consuming scene is the evidence that Caravaggio does not paint wet religious scenes. There is nothing wimpy about the gospel that he presents. Firstly let’s check out his painting technique. He confidently sculpts figures out of shadows, employing a high contrast technique that provides the exact impetus such a scene deserves. This moment, when Christ is betrayed and arrested, needs to be dramatic, striking, commanding.
Despite being a scene so convincing, a Christ so attractive – so authentic and yet divine – Caravaggio himself expresses his doubt.
And then there’s Christ. Probably the most beautiful Christ I have seen in paint – and I don’t mean how realistically Caravaggio has painted each feature, I certainly don’t mean aesthetically with his overgrown beard, and matted hair, I mean that His character is just the Christ I want to follow. He is reluctant, but he does not resist Judas’ kiss. His heart is heavy – broken for the world, and for His disciple who has turned away from Him in his betrayal. His thoughts and actions are considered, he knows what he must do, and will carry it through. He is strong-willed, but willing. He is a peacemaker, but will rightly disrupt any misplaced peace in favour of God’s name and his people. There is nothing wet about this Christ.
Despite being a scene so convincing, a Christ so attractive – so authentic and yet divine – Caravaggio himself expresses his doubt. The artist has inserted himself as an onlooker – the young figure to the far right of the scene, who, with curiosity holds up a lantern to shed light on the matter. He is an active seeker, but can be contrasted to John, the figure on the far left, who was ‘the beloved disciple’ of Christ. Caravaggio paints John as though attached by the head to Christ – he couldn’t be closer – and in despair of Christ’s destiny, cries out before fleeing in fear. Paradoxically, we see the artist standing to one side, judging Christ for himself, seemingly unsure of what to make of Him.
He is a peacemaker, but will rightly disrupt any misplaced peace in favour of God’s name and his people. There is nothing wet about this Christ.
The lantern is somewhat superficial, we can tell from the lighting in the painting that it is not actually illuminating Christ, Judas or the soldier. This lantern must therefore be symbolic. This is especially true when looking to where the starkest light has been painted, and that is: Christ (importantly), and Caravaggio forehead (unexpectedly.) The result is that the gaze of the artist is tied to its subject, and this constructs a narrative of a relationship between the artist and Christ within the scene. What surely would make more sense for the biblical narrative, would be to have Judas or the solider spotlighted, but evidently part of the act of painting this piece for the artist, is the determining of his own relationship with Christ, His passion, and the conclusive salvation.
This is what I feel when I look at Caravaggio’s paintings, that I can’t help but be absorbed by the narrative unveiled, and in turn find myself contemplating the God I worship, and the precious relationship I have with him.
Talking of discerning for oneself, the account of Thomas doubting the resurrected Christ has been a gospel account I find relevant again and again. Each time I read it, I have to commit myself to believing, whether I can see the fruit of God’s goodness or not. Caravaggio’s ‘The Doubting Thomas’ (below) materialises this challenge in such a stunning manner. Three disciples gather round the resurrected Christ, to see what to make of His stomach wound. Christ, like the teacher he was, has patiently pulled back his robe (as though a curtain), to reveal the deep cut in his side, which he then guides Thomas’ hand into, so that he may feel the wound for himself. Thomas must trust in Jesus.
As far as we know Thomas wasn’t blind, but here Caravaggio represents him as having the wide, misplaced eyes of a man who is – illustrating that he is spiritually blind – he cannot recognise that this is the resurrected Christ before him. However, what unfolded as you look longer at the painting is the recognition the disciple has of who Christ is – his eyebrows become raised with the shock of his revelation and he bends humbly towards his Saviour.
The artist’s incredibly tactile (almost low-relief) wound is an allusion to the audience’s own desire to see in order to believe, and speaks of the pioneering role the artist had in painting realistic, believable and approachable re-enactments of the gospel. Everyone needs encouragement to believe. Right now I’m wondering what could be a better tool for bringing people to Christ than paintings such as these?