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Rediscovering a Caravaggio masterpiece

The story below has a special attraction: it is the story of an important discovery described by the discoverer. Noel Barber was not quite like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes he star’d at the Pacific. But Noel’s exploration was equally painstaking and visual, and lasted nearly two years before he could say: Yes, this painting is a Caravaggio original, and we, the Jesuits of Leeson Street, are giving it to the nation on indefinite loan. Noel met us, his community, after being briefed by the Director of the National Gallery, who had undertaken to restore the dark and dusty old painting thinking it was by Honthorst. In a state of subdued excitement we were honour-bound to keep secret the fact that it was a lost Caravaggio. It had been bought in Edinburgh for £8 and could be worth fifty million. Noel tells the story with the gusto of a connoisseur: a lovely tale with a happy ending.

[This article is the text of a lecture given in the National Gallery of Ireland on Sunday March 1st, one of a series of public talks to accompany the National Gallery of Ireland exhibition Passion & Persuasion: Images of Baroque Saints, 11 February – 31 May 2015. The exhibition and lecture series are intended to mark the bicentenary of the Jesuit Restoration (1814-2014).]

Rediscovering a Caravaggio masterpiece

Fr Noel Barber SJ

Let us look firstly at the painting and then at the discovery. It has been said that the painting is the darkest and densest of all C’s works. Flick through any book on the work of C. and I think that you will verify this fact. Furthermore, you will see that reproductions of the painting will have much more colour than the original. This is true of this slide! He was the master of chiaroscuro, that dramatic mingling of light and darkness. In this painting C created a painting almost entirely oscuro and the little light there is can hardly compete with the darkness. That darkness strikes a note of tragedy and foreboding.

The story is taken from the 14th chapter of Mark’s Gospel:

Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. Then they laid hands on him and arrested him. But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to them, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.” All of them deserted him and fled. A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked. (Mark 14:43-51)

We do not get all the action of Mark’s account, but selected items. Looking at the painting, we see seven figures crowded into the space. Because the whole scene is pushed into our space we become more than spectators, we become participants. Two figures on the periphery claim our attention. One because he is making off dramatically (The gospel author probably meant to remind us that people followed Jesus, some with enthusiasm who promised to leave all to be with him and here we see this young man prepared to leave all and run away naked to avoid following him.); the second figure catches our attention because he is carrying a lantern and is shedding light on the scene; he is inquisitive but detached. The central figure, by reason of his position, is the soldier who is grasping Christ; however, thanks to the light shed from the lantern, Christ and Judas become the centre of attention. Christ does not try to push Judas back; he is pained, disappointed and passive; one of his closest companions is betraying him. Judas is almost manic, looking with intensity over the shoulder of Jesus; yet there is something like sadness mixed with the intensity. The soldiers are indifferent, carrying out their duty.

We can admire the technique but the painting invites us to do more: to feel for the man betrayed. If we do not feel for him then the painting really means nothing to us. The test of our appreciation is our feeling. Does the horror of betrayal grip us?

This painting is a story about betrayal but for some it is a story of a very special betrayal; Christians believe that it is the betrayal of Jesus who is the Christ, the Son of God. They will admire the technique of the painter and will try to enter into the emotions that this painting evokes but in the believer what feelings does the painting evoke? Are we to ask ourselves if there is a bit of the young man in us: have we pledged to follow Christ and have we made off when demands have been made of us? Have we at times been merely passive observers of Christ, like the figure in the corner? Have we seriously betrayed Christ like Judas? Are we ready to react to betrayal as Christ did?

St Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises asks us to contemplate the passion of Christ, praying to feel sorrow, affliction and confusion because Christ is going to His Passion because of our sins (SpEx 193). Is that a legitimate emotion for the painting to evoke or is one crossing borders from the artistic to the religious? Is such a crossing legitimate?

In February 1992 the National Gallery put on the exhibition Caravaggio and his Followers. The catalogue of the exhibition contained an essay by Colin Wiggins. He linked the style of Caravaggio to the spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Wiggins wrote that Loyola encouraged one not merely to learn the stories in the scripture, but to imagine oneself as entering physically into the stories and undergoing the same experiences as the characters depicted. Caravaggio, in pushing his figures into the world of the viewer, provided exactly the kind of painting suited to Jesuit spirituality of the time. This point Audrey Nicholls will develop in her lecture on Tuesday.

For the 1992 exhibition the NGI provided many paintings by the followers of Caravaggio, some of which are displayed in the Passion and Persuasion exhibition, but the Gallery had to borrow a work of Caravaggio, himself, from the National Gallery, London, The Supper at Emmaus. While people at the time lamented the absence of an “Irish” Caravaggio, Sergio Benedetti was lovingly restoring The Taking of Christ.

The Discovery
In 1990 I became Superior of the Leeson Street Jesuit Community. I found that we were in possession of a painting that was a gift to the community and had been in the community dining room for about 30 years; the label on the painting read:

honthorst
There was a grammatical error (it should have been ‘notti’ not ‘notte). This was, however, to prove significant in identifying the painting as a Caravaggio. Another error on the label which I noticed for the first time very recently is the date of Hornthorst’s death; it was 1656 not 1660. Gerard of the Nights was the nick name for Gerrit Von Honthorst and alluded to his penchant for nocturnal scenes illuminated by candlelight. He was a leading member of the Utrecht school of Dutch painting, had studied in Rome where he had been influenced by Caravaggio, and he in turn was to influence Rembrandt. At the moment he has three paintings in the National Gallery of Ireland and you probably know his beautiful Christ before the High Priest in the National Gallery, London. There are two versions of his mocking of Christ in Los Angeles, the first one in the Getty and the second in the LA Museum of Art. After returning to Utrecht from Rome, he developed an international reputation but gradually abandoned the Caravaggistic for a more classicist style.

So you can imagine, I was delighted to find the community in possession of a painting of such a painter. The painting bore the dust of the years and required restoration. Even in its unrestored state the painting was breathtakingly impressive hanging in the dining room for most of its 30 years residency in the Jesuit Leeson Street residence.

As I had been commissioned to renovate the house and prepare it for a change of use, I thought that if we were to renovate the house, then surely we should restore this painting. I raised the question of its restoration with the Gallery. The then Assistant Director, Dr. Brian Kennedy, agreed at once to have the painting restored IF it was a Honthorst in return for which the Jesuits would make it available for exhibitions when required. He then brought the restorer, Sergio Benedetti, to examine the painting and we agreed on the final details for its cleaning.

From time to time over the next 18 months I visited Benedetti’s studio and observed the transformation of the painting, seeing colours and details that the years had obscured. What I did not know was that once Benedetti, an expert on the works of the 17th century Italian painting, saw the painting in Leeson Street he realized that it was the best copy of a lost Caravaggio or — and he hardly dared to think such a thought — was it the original? Then one day Brian Kennedy came to my office and as I stood up to greet him, he said, ‘Noel, sit down. You will not be able to take standing up what I have to say’. He then told me that it was almost certain that the painting was a lost Caravaggio. He led me through the technical details which showed that the date of the painting was right for Caravaggio and that tests had established that it was an original and not a copy. Furthermore a quest for its provenance indicated that it was commissioned for the Mattei family in Rome, but at the end of the 18th century it had been bought by the Nesbit family in Scotland from where it came to Ireland in the 1920s. But until the final tests on the painting had been completed, the matter was to remain strictly confidential.

Having got over the shock, my first reaction was to determine that the painting should at all costs stay in Ireland and that its home should be the Irish National Gallery. It was clear to me that the Jesuit Community held the painting on a charitable trust and were not free to alienate it. We were, therefore, obliged to do what we wanted to do: make it available to Ireland by giving it on indefinite loan to the National Gallery. If the painting had been sold, then it would almost certainly have gone out of the country and Ireland would have lost a priceless treasure. I found that my colleagues and superiors were of one mind on the matter. I informed the 14 Jesuits in the Leeson Street Community and the Jesuit Provincial. We imposed a Trappist vow of silence on ourselves and observed it until the news broke in the media over a year later, when the master was revealed.
At this point Sergio Benedetti came to speak to the Leeson Street Community about the painting and the quest that ended in his being satisfied that it was a Caravaggio. That meeting was particularly significant for one person in the community, Fr Martin Brennan an emeritus lecturer of Botany in UCD. He had the habit of speaking frequently about the beauty of the painting in general and of specific details. When Sergio Benedetti spoke about the strengths of the painting, he mentioned all the points on which Fr Brennan almost wearied the community. As he spoke, Fr Brennan took on the appearance of a cat that had run off with the cream.

Caravaggio’s life was turbulent; John Banville puts it succinctly in Lines of Vision ‘What was said of Byron could be as well said of him, that he was mad, bad and dangerous to know, he was dead by the age of 38 from fever, it seems, though he may have been murdered. If it was murder, it is hardly surprising, for he had lived by the sword. Indeed he killed a man himself in 1606. ….He was a swaggerer, a pederast, an adept with the stiletto, on whom the police had a record that ran to many pages’ (Lines of Vision, 19). So given Caravaggio’s turbulent life, it is perhaps appropriate that the discovery of the painting should have its remote origins in a murder. On a June morning in 1920 in a town of Gorey in Co. Wexford in Ireland, the IRA murdered the District Inspector of the RIC, Captain Percival Lea-Wilson in revenge for his alleged mistreating of republican prisoners after the collapse of the 1916 rebellion.

Her friends believed that his wife would never recover from her husband’s murder. She was Marie Ryan, the daughter of a well-known Catholic solicitor in Charleville, Cork whom Lea Wilson had married in 1914. She never believed that her husband had maltreated the prisoners and the thought of his murder tormented her. After her husband’s murder, Marie Lea Wilson put herself through medical school. She became a consultant in the Children’s Hospital, Harcourt Street, Dublin where she worked until she died at the age of 83 in 1971. When she was a student, she took a holiday in Edinburgh where, as was her habit, she visited the Galleries, auction rooms and antique dealers. She noted one particularly fine painting, The Taking of Christ in the Garden, in a magnificent frame. The plaque on the frame attributed the painting to Gerard Honthorst. She paid £8 for the painting, returned to Dublin and hung it in her splendid Georgian House in Fitzwilliam Place.

Her friends were right. Although she became a well-known and distinguished consultant, she never fully recovered from her husband’s murder and from time to time was in great distress. In her troubles she sought the help and advice of a Jesuit priest, the Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at University College Dublin, Father Thomas Finlay. Father Finlay became her friend, philosopher and guide. One day in the early 1930s she gave the painting that she had bought in Edinburgh to the Jesuit Community in Leeson Street. This was her way of thanking Father Finlay for the spiritual assistance he had given her. It was to hang in the Jesuit’s dining room for sixty years.

When I handed over the painting to the National Gallery on indefinite loan on behalf of the Irish Jesuits at a public ceremony in 1993, I presented it to the Chairperson of the Gallery’s Board, Dr. William Finlay. He was the grand-nephew of Father Thomas Finlay to whom Marie Lea Wilson gave the painting. There was a satisfying symmetry about this that appealed to me.

When Brian Kennedy came to tell me the news that a Honthorst had become a Caravaggio, he said that one thing was absolutely necessary: Sir Denis Mahon, the collector, scholar and expert on Baroque paintings would have to confirm that it was a Caravaggio. The Gallery invited Sir Denis to Dublin on some pretext and brought him into the restorer’s room and asked him who painted the painting before him. In a matter of minutes or less he answered, ‘Caravaggio’. Sighs of relief all round!

At the opening of the Exhibition The Master Revealed Sir Denis brought me around the various versions of the Taking of Christ on display, some clearly based on Caravaggio, others less so, if at all. Sir Denis lingered for some time in front of the version from Odessa. At that time and subsequently claims have been made that it was the original and not a copy. Sir Denis heaped praise on the painter and his ability. ‘BUT’, he said, ‘The Odessa painter had a weakness which was a strength of Caravaggio. Caravaggio was masterly in his painting of fingers. Look at the Odessa fingers: they are sausages’. End of evaluation.

How come, some have asked, that the Leeson Street Jesuit community had no notion that the painting might be by Caravaggio? After all, the community had contained people who were knowledgeable in artistic matters. They included a Chairperson of the Art’s Council and a distinguished philosopher of art. When Sergio Benedetti saw the painting for the first time in the Jesuit Residence, Leeson Street, he knew at once that it was at least a magnificent version of a lost Caravaggio. This lost Caravaggio had been discussed and sought since 1943 when Longhi published the 1672 description of the painting by Bellori. Furthermore, versions of The Taking of Christ had been on exhibition since the early 1950’s, so, one might expect that the painting would have been recognised, at least, as a version of the sought after Caravaggio. Moreover, in 1971 Frommel confirmed that a painting “Imprigionamento del N.S. di Gherardo della Notte (sic)” referred to a painting by Caravaggio. The painting in the Jesuit residence also had the erroneous “notte”. Had there been anybody in the community since the 1950’s with a keen interest in Caravaggio, the painting would have been seen as a version of the lost painting; the article published in 1971 by Frommel would have sowed the suspicion that it was more than a version.

One answer to the question put above is that Caravaggio has not always enjoyed the reputation that he does today. Is it possible that the painting was attributed to Honthorst at the end of the 18th century because he stood higher in the esteem of the cognoscenti of the art world? Actually, the most knowledgeable Jesuit in the Leeson Street community, the Chairperson of the Arts Council, had little time for Caravaggio and the Baroque. This man would have concurred with a then generally accepted view of Caravaggio, which Michael Levy expressed,

‘Caravaggio was perhaps the victim of an artistic delusion, for the closer he came to imaging realistic surfaces in paint, the more the inner significance is lacking. There is some hollowness behind his apparently hardest modelling, and an absence of conviction under the waxwork appearances. The effects may be eye-deceiving, but they do not deceive the mind’ (A History of Modern Art [(London, 1968] 242)

This downgrading of Caravaggio and the Baroque painters was due in large measure to John Ruskin, and it is Denis Mahon who is generally credited with some others of rehabilitating Caravaggio and bringing Italian Baroque painters to the attention of English-speaking audiences, reversing the critical aversion to their work that had prevailed from the time of Ruskin.

Finally, had it not been alleged that Percival Lea Wilson humiliated the Republican prisoners in 1916, he would not have been murdered; had he not been murdered, his wife would not have sought counseling from Fr. Finlay; had she not become Fr. Finlay’s client, she would not have given The Taking of Christ to the Leeson Street Jesuits; had she not done that, we would not have been able to give the magnificent painting to the NGI. A strange thread of events.