In Dublin you never know who you’re going to meet. You might see Ron Woods in the supermarket, or Van Morrison riding a bike. You might be having your school lunch in a dorm covered with grimy old paintings that are lost masterpieces worth millions. The great and the ordinary co-exist comfortably in this little old town.
And so it is that one of the greatest paintings in the history of art finds its way to the National Gallery of Ireland.
It’s a dramatic piece of work. Here’s the scene: you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is the middle of night. You hear the the sound of metal against metal, boots on the street. What do you see? Moonlight glints on blackened, armoured figures. There is a murmur, a scuffle. Someone screams. It’s dark and you feel vulnerable. Are they coming for you? It’s a dramatic, awful moment of violation, and the shameless perpetrators are counting on the cover of night.
And then, in a small flicker of light, a great injustice is revealed for all the world to see. But it’s not a camera that catches the criminal in the act. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, aged only 31, has painted himself thrusting a strained but vital beam of light into the scene, bearing witness to the arrest of the most beloved man on earth. With cinematographic panache, this outrageous, iconoclastic young genius has changed the course of European painting forever.
His photographic flair was astonishing to his contemporaries, who were more likely to prefer unnaturally posed figures in allegorical scenes. He died after a short and debauched life 400 years ago in 1610, leaving scores of lesser artists scrambling to copy and imitate him. The dubious homage of countless “fakes” that followed has thrown many collectors off the scent of the authentic master, but even the tribute paintings of the prolific Dutch “caravaggistes” have more in common with our contemporary art of storyboarding than anything that went before.
“The Taking of Christ” in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland is one of only about five dozen known works of Caravaggio that have survived. Its discovery by Sergio Benedetti (the gallery’s Italian specialist) two decades ago has catapulted this modest public institution into the big leagues. There is a humorous nod to the painting’s undiscovered history in a Dublin monastery in the film “Ordinary Decent Criminal” (2000), but the truth of the find is not as the film suggests.
Benedetti told us the story himself in one of the Gallery’s free public lectures this month. It was 1990 and he was curating an exhibition of works by artists who followed Caravaggio’s example. He went to inspect a work purported to be a very good copy in the possession of the Dublin Jesuits on Leeson Street. Through the grime and botched restoration attempts, he still recognised something undeniably masterful. You will too, when you see this painting in context.
I had the pleasure of queueing for an hour in the heat and paying €12 to look at the collection in the Galleria Borghese in Rome earlier this year, and it is when you look at all the other so-called masterpieces and compare them with Caravaggio, that you realise there is no comparison.
And yet, here in Dublin, where we are not dripping in art like they are in the Eternal City, you can stumble upon this and other remarkable items for free at the National Gallery of Ireland. And there are still surprises in store.
Retired after 35 years at the Gallery, Benedetti has been commissioned to produce a catalogue of the Gallery’s collection of Italian paintings. He confesses he will never really be able to give up trying to solve the mystery of the unattributed works, particularly the one of Cain Killing Abel.
I am working on my own screenplay for that one.
Marie Stamp, a Dublin resident from St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, attended Sergio Benedtti’s free talk on Caravaggio at the National Gallery of Ireland on December 7th, 2010. For more information on free events at the National Gallery visit www.nationalgalleryofireland.ie