Mr. Standfast

"Nothing taken for granted; everything received with gratitude; everything passed on with grace." G. K. Chesterton

November 19, 2003

On Caravaggio's "The Taking of Christ"

First of all, a poem. I wrote it this morning, while walking the dog. Calling it, for now, Autumn.

This morning I noticed that the dawn
had drifted far southward.
For a moment it seemed
I had awakened on a different planet,
under an unfamiliar sky.

So then I began to look for
the old world, its signs
and wonders, and lo
and behold a summer cardinal
came to the ancient maple,
that old desiccated palace,
and busied itself among the ruins.

Thank you, friend.
Your gesture is not lost
on me.


On Caravaggio's "The Taking of Christ":

I wanted to write a thing or two about this picture, called "The Taking of Christ," which is on the National Gallery of Art website (here), and which hangs at the National Gallery of Ireland. This painting is so striking, so beautiful, that it has remained on my mind all week. I find I must speak of it.

The artist is Caravaggio, an Italian of the Baroque period (I am told), living from 1573 to 1610. What is so striking to me about this painting? It is a dark and crowded scene. The soldiers, rushing into the frame from the right, their polished black armor glistening in the firelight, seem to manifest the very darkness from which they have emerged. That armor speaks not only of hardness, of power, but also, I think, a kind of pride of rank. The soldiers clearly have the upper-hand here. They are in control. They are performing their duties with arrogant dispatch. They are not afraid.

Then there's Judas. Notice that he has already become irrelevant. The soldiers push past him even before the infamous kiss has been completed. His forehead is high and stern, but his knit brows seem to express a certain consternation, as if he knows he's been used. He has served his purpose, the purposes of power, and now will be swept from the stage of history.

Then, Jesus. Yielding. Aware, as no other in the scene, just exactly what is happening. Just exactly what is coming to pass. He has prayed that the cup be taken from him, and even now his hands are knit in prayer, though his arms are being pressed downward by the grip of Judas. Nevertheless, the fingers remain twined; these hands of prayer represent the most distinctly lit part of the picture. Our eyes are drawn to them. In the confusion they seem for the moment disembodied, for it is a strained and anomalous posture. For a moment we might even wonder whose hands they are?

And there is so much else. The shadows that cover the eyes of Jesus, as if he sees only darkness now. The two raised hands; the one on the left, that of the fleeing disciple, frightened out his wits, and the one on the right, perhaps of Peter, who seems to wish to ask a question. It's a confused moment of disparate emotion: the zeal of the soldiers, the utter fear of the disciple, the strained and tragic earnestness of Judas, and then Jesus surrendering.

Well, I think it's beautiful. Anyone else?