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Unmissable: BBC on Caravaggio

caravaggio_01.jpgLast November, AMDG Update reported the activity of a TV crew in Leeson Street preparing a documentary on the house’s Caravaggio painting, The Taking of Christ, which was a major art find in the early 1990s. The programme, entitled ‘Private life of an Easter masterpiece’, appeared on BBC 2 on Holy Saturday, and it deserved every superlative in the book. It told a gripping story with an art that concealed deep scholarship, looking at both the planning and execution of the painting, and the extraordinary ups and downs of its subsequent history, from Cardinal Mattei’s generous payment of the artist in 1602 to its disposal at a minor auction in Edinburgh for eight guineas in 1921 – when it was described not as a Caravaggio but “after Honthorst”.

The programme contrasted earlier paintings of the kiss of Judas by Giotto and Durer, and described the difficulty of getting a model to stay still for minutes while wearing heavy armour. It demonstrated Caravaggio’s daring and skill in painting over an unconventional base layer of dark brown. It opened perspectives on the construction and history of the painting, and on how it appealed to Dr Lee Wilson – who later presented it to Fr Tom Finlay –  as a picture of innocence betrayed, at a time when she was grieving for her murdered husband.

The “religious meeting house” in Leeson Street received due coverage (the resident Jesuits “took a vow of silence” about the affair until the new ascription was secure – your reporter was one of the voventes). There were excellent contributions from Noel Barber SJ who as Superior organised the cleaning and re-ascribing of the painting (from van Honthorst to Caravaggio), and then lent it to the nation. If readers have difficulty in viewing the programme on the BBC website, come to Leeson Street, sit in the Hopkins room, make yourself a cup of coffee and enjoy it here in comfort. Because you’re worth it.