Academic journal article Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art

The Painter as Evangelist in Caravaggio's Taking of Christ

Academic journal article Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art

The Painter as Evangelist in Caravaggio's Taking of Christ

Article excerpt

For Leo Steinberg

Although the fleeing figure on the extreme left of Caravaggio's Taking of Christ (1602) (Fig. 1) has been called the Apostle John, this identification, beginning with Walter Friedlaender's note in Caravaggio Studies, (1) has more often been denied, questioned, or ignored. I will demonstrate this figure can only be St. John, the beloved Apostle, and thus provides a dramatic contrast within the picture to the traitor Judas. Also and more important, when understood with the figure on the extreme right, the fleeing John is only spatially peripheral; the two figures, when taken together form a pair that offers insights both into Caravaggio's spirituality and into his ideas on the mission of the painter.

Before the painting was rediscovered in 1993, its composition was known and discussed. (2) Giovan Pietro Bellori described the picture: "Marchese Asbrubale Mattei had him paint the Taking of Christ in the Garden, which is in half-figures. Judas lays his hand on the shoulder of the Lord after the kiss, and a soldier in full armor extends his arm and his ironclad hand to the chest of the Lord who stands patiently and humbly with his arms crossed before him; behind St. John is seen fleeing with outstretched arms. Caravaggio indicated even the rust of the armor of the soldier whose head is covered by a helmet so that only his profile can be seen; behind him a lantern is raised and one can distinguish two more heads of armed men." (3) In 1943, based on this description, Roberto Longhi identified two copies of the painting (4) and since then at least eight more have been found. (5)

Believing he was correcting Bellori, Friedlaender wrote in 1955, "In accordance with Mark (14:51-52) the youth who runs away at the left is not St. John... but a young follower of Christ ..." (6) In this "correction" Friedlaender is followed by Howard Hibbard, (7) Sergio Benedetti, (8) Kristina Herman Fiore, (9) and Creighton Gilbert. (10) Benedetti (11) later changed his mind and Catherine Puglisi (12) followed him. In none of these assertions and counter assertions has the identity of Caravaggio's fleeing figure been definitively argued, so that in 1998 Leo Bersani and Ullysse Dutoit (13) could say that his identity is ambiguous and Helen Langdon (14) in the same year presented alternatives but offered no definitive opinion. The 1999 exhibition of Caravaggio's Arrest of Christ in the National Gallery of Art in Washington provided a brochure whose discussion of the painting retreated from all identifications of this figure with the noncommittal "follower of Christ." (15)

If an argument as to the identity of this figure is to be offered, a look at the Gospel accounts of Christ's arrest is a necessary preparation. The four Gospels show Christ in the garden of Gethsemane with his disciples; in Mark's and Luke's Gospels, the three Apostles, Peter, James, and John, are asked to accompany him while he goes to pray. After his prayer, while Christ addresses these three, Judas arrives with a crowd--a heavily armed crowd, according to Matthew and Luke. In Matthew and Mark, Judas kisses Jesus; in Luke he is about to do so, but it is not stated there that Judas' lips actually touch Christ. In Matthew and Mark the soldiers then seize Christ, and one of those with Jesus cuts off the ear of the servant of the high priest. In Luke, these two moments happen in reverse order and Luke also adds that Christ healed the servant's ear. In Mark and Matthew all of Christ's followers who are present then flee. This is not stated in Luke. Mark adds to the flight of the Apostles an element not in the other accounts: "And a certain young man followed him, having a linen cloth cast about around his naked body, and they laid hold on him. But he, casting off the linen cloth, fled from them naked" (Mark 14:51-52). All three synoptic accounts agree that Christ was then led away to the high priest. The Gospel of John amends these accounts by omitting the kiss, identifying Peter as the disciple who cut off the servant's ear, and by naming this servant Malchus. …

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