In the 1990’s a Jesuit priest, Fr Noel Barber, superior at their house in Dublin, decided to have some of their paintings in Lesson St (Dublin) restored. He asked that one of the officials from the National Gallery of Ireland might come and advise him. It was then discovered that one of their paintings, which had hung in their dining room since 1930, was in actual fact an original by the great Italian painter Caravaggio, a fiery painter of 17th century, noted for his violent outbursts but also recognised as one of the great painters of his time and also in the ages to come. The subject of the painting was the taking of Christ, namely Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and his arrest.
The painting had come to the Jesuits as a gift but had always been thought to be only a mere copy of the original. The woman who had given it to them, her own family had bought it from a rich Scots family who in turn had bought it from the Italian family who had initially commissioned it. The painstaking research confirmed that it was in actual fact the original painting of the Taking of Christ commissioned by the Mattei family in 1602, thought to be long lost.
The subject of the painting is what we hear in the Gospel of St John today on Good Friday, that moment when Judas steps forward and kisses and betrays Jesus, Jesus is then taken away by the soldiers, to be tried and put to death.
In all of Caravaggio’s painting there is a contrast between darkness and light. The painting is in complete darkness but again its almost as if a beam of light is switched on to reveal the group of people who are the subject of the painting.
The 7 people that are shown are packed and squeezed tightly together, reminding us of the ill tempered crowd that comes to take and seize Jesus – the temple guards and Roman soldiers.
The painting has on the right side the figure of St John crying out, holding up his hands and running away and one of the soldiers reaching out grabs his flowing cape. On the other side is a figure of man holding a lantern looking on, is meant to represent St Peter, curious and taking everything in.
The central figures in the painting are of Judas and Jesus. Judas is kissing Jesus. Jesus eyes are cast down, his hands and arms fall down limp, he offers no resistance; Judas cranes forward to kiss him, Jesus accepts Judas kiss.
The soldiers also are right in the centre of the painting: the armour of the soldiers like themsleves looks menacing - it is black, black as the night that surrounds them, but highly polished and shining and things around about them are reflected in the shining and gleaming armour. One of the soldiers is in the act of seizing Jesus and Jesus looks as if he gives no resistance, he accepts his fate.
The two figures on either side of the painting, John the apostle and the man carrying the lantern are meant to be two contrasting figures. Two different reactions to Jesus if you like, one is running away and losing faith, symbolised by John (and the other apostles) the other is the figure who remains, watches, is drawn in and curious. Two different responses in faith one who at the end of the day runs away at the first sign of danger, the other who remains and cannot leave – at least in this moment.
The highly polished armoury of the soldiers catches the reflection of other things round about. Carvaggio wants to create the effect that also it catches a mirror reflection of us who are looking into the picture. Reminding us that the treachery of Judas could quite easily be our treachery too, those daily occasions in which we are prepared to sell him out for gold, to get our own way, for false popularity or whatever .
The painting, without saying a word takes us to Jerusalem at the time of Jesus passion and death. To this tight packed crowd, that airless night, that crowd threatening violence, into the middle of this act of treachery and deception on Judas’ part. Into the flight of his apostles. Right into the events of Jesus’ cruel treatment and his terrible death.
But the painting is much more than a record of these events, replaying them back to us, it has a deeper message. It is about our reaction to the passion and death of Jesus - on the one hand one who runs away on the other the one who stays and remains despite what is to come. Its about one who keeps faith and one who loses faith. It is about the one who is afraid and the one who is not afraid.
And it’s a painting the reminds us to check ourselves, to look into our hearts and see if there is treachery and deception whether we sell out the Lord for gold, for the lure of worldly things as does Judas – and are we somehow reflected in the armoury of the soldier, in the treachery of the event, does our face stare back at us from the painting.
The painting is much more than a record of the events of that first good Friday it is an arrow that flies by night and pricks our conscience. It places us in the crowd and asks us what we would do and where we stand.
Good Friday is also much more than recalling the events of that first Good Friday. It is much more than merely turning up and taking part. It is much more than the fast and the day of prayer. It’s is about being the man or woman who stays, remains, come what may, who doesn’t take to their heals. To be his follower when the day and hour comes. Who carries the lantern giving light through life.