I was running late for a dinner with friends. Fortunately, the National Gallery of Ireland was not far from our appointed restaurant, the Saddle Room in the Shelburne Hotel on St. Stephan's Green. I gave myself, roughly, about a half hour for a quick 'drive-by' at the museum. I know. I know. Sacrilegious, but I did have that dinner date.
The receptionist looked kindly -- at least I hoped she'd be forgiving.
'If there's just time to enjoy one treasure in your collection, what would you recommend?'
Without hesitation the kindly lady said, 'To my mind, it would be The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio. Upstairs to the left.'
I was intrigued by the quick response. Check, Caravaggio, really Michelangelo Mersi of Caravaggio. Profligate lady's man. Even said to be a murderer. But the painting? Never heard of it.
The receptionist sensed my hesitation.
'The picture has a interesting background,' she went on. 'It was owned by a woman in Edinburgh, who thought it was done by an unidentified Dutch master. She decided it was too big for her flat, and she finally donated to the Jesuits here in Dublin. The Jesuits received the picture graciously, and promptly hung it in their community's refectory amid kitchen fumes and cigarette, pipe, and cigar smoke.
'Coincidentally, about the same time, we had an Italian curator on staff, who one night was invited to dine with the Jesuits. Above him at the head table was the Caravaggio.
'"Caravaggio, eh?' curator said, pointing to the picture."
'"Alas, no,' replied his Jesuit host. "A Dutch work."'
'No, a Carravaggio,' the curator insisted.
Rest is history. Upstairs to the left.
Turns out the painting was originally owned by the late Dr. Marie Lea-Wilson, the Edinburgh lady who donated the work to the Jesuit order here. In 1992, the Jebbies turned over the painting to the Gallery on indefinite loan.
'The Taking of Christ was painted by Caravaggio for the Roman Marquis Ciraco Mattei at the end of 1602.... Breaking with the past, the artist offered a new visual rendering of the narrative of the Gospels, reducing the spacer around the three-quarter-length figures and avoiding any description of the setting,' according to Gallery's notes. 'All emphasis is directed on the action perpetrated by Judas and the Temple guards on an overwhelmed Jesus, who offers no resistance to his destiny. The fleeing disciple in disarray on the left is St John the Evangelist. Only the moon lights the scene: although the man at the far side is holding a lantern, it is in reality an ineffective source. In that man's features Caravaggio portrayed himself, at the age of thirty one, as a passive spectator of the divine tragedy.'
Just less than an hour later (I couldn't resist other distractions), I made it the Saddle Room. Hardly a tack room, I noted to my dining companions.