The President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, visited the National Gallery, and Noel Barber SJ was interviewed there by RTE’s Marian Finucane, on Thursday 15 November, 2018. This was part of a series of events marking the 25th anniversary of the unveiling of The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio. The painting was given on indefinite loan to the gallery by the Jesuits in Ireland, in 1993.
Fr Barber told Marian Finucane and those gathered for the celebratory evening, how the painting had been hanging in the dining room of the Jesuit Community house in Leeson St, and was mistakenly believed to be the work of Gerard Honthorst. Fr Barber was superior of the community, and decided to give the whole house a bit of a dusting off. He invited a professional from the National Gallery, Sergio Benedetti, to assist with the cleaning of the painting. “He was an expert on Caravaggio and the Baroque era and he said nothing only “we should restore that painting”, and in the restoration he confirmed what he hardly dared to hope – that it was not a Honthorst but a missing Caravaggio. That required a great deal of forensic examination and a great deal of examining the provenance,”said Fr Barber, adding, “It was looking down on us for 60 years from the 1930s to the 1990s, and it was very obviously a great painting.”
Speaking at the ceremony President Higgins described the discovery of the Caravaggio as “one of the most significant events in the history of the National Gallery”.
As Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht in 1993, Mr Higgins was present when The Taking of Christ – which dates back to 1602 – made its debut at the Gallery on November 16th. He told the The Irish Times on Thursday how he once spent an evening in the mid-1990s observing the painting’s beauty with members of The Rolling Stones, who he said “stayed for ages looking at it”.
“It’s a powerful humanist statement but yet it has also spiritual significance,” the President said. “It’s one of those pictures that you could come to again and again.”
Sean Rainbird, Director of the National Gallery, said the Caravaggio is a big attraction because of the painting’s gritty realism and the romantic appeal of its discovery. “It’s a firm favourite with our public, whether from here or from overseas, and I think it will always remain that,” Rainbird said, adding, “This rediscovered masterpiece has a special place in the Gallery and we remain indebted to the Irish Jesuit community for their continued generosity in making the work available on loan.”
“It was terrific to be involved with something of that magnitude even though my part was small,” Fr Barber said on Thursday. “It was great, as a member of the Jesuit community, to be able to hand it over to the state on indefinite loan. I was full of amazement and joy.”
The National Gallery laid on a series of events all day long to mark this significant anniversary. There were two screenings of the investigative BBC art documentary Private Life of a Masterpiece: ‘The Taking of Christ’ by Caravaggio. Fr Barber’s and former Gallery director Raymond Keaveney’s discussion with Marian Finucane was followed by a lecture from Professor Richard Spear, Professor Emeritus, Oberlin College, and Affiliate Research Professor, University of Maryland. Finally, a night of 90s nostalgia with special guided tours and pop-up music performances as part of the Gallery’s ongoing “Thursday Late” proved a fitting end to the anniversary festivities.