I’m certainly no expert in paintings, but I do have my favourites. “The taking of Christ” by Caravaggio has always taken the top spot for me. It was discovered to be a work of Caravaggio only centuries later.
It hung above the fireplace until one day the Jesuit priest decided to have it cleaned. When the man came to clean it up, he’d sat the priest down to explain. What seemed like an ordinary painting turned out to be a Caravaggio worth millions, and when the priest heard it, he was gobsmacked.
Since 1992 it has been on indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Dublin. I live just under one hour north of Dublin, so visiting isn’t a problem, and I visit very often. I love to sit and look at this painting up close. I am so spoiled to have my favourite art in the world so close as to smell the paint.
Why do I like it? I love the sorrow and humility in it. I see myself as every character in the painting. At one point in my life, I was like Christ the betrayed, then the betrayer, and sometimes the soldiers. But there is another character I see myself as.
In the painting, we will note that Caravaggio painted himself into the image as one who holds the light and stands furthest away. I read Caravaggio was a bad boy. He’d gotten into so many brawls even so far as to kill his lover’s husband in a duel on the street, and he won.
Having read such history, one can certainly understand why he chose to paint himself at a distance. He saw himself as distant from Christ, an onlooker like the rest of us. That’s what we do isn’t it? We look on as the world mocks, betrays and attacks Christ. Our hand holds the light at a distance.
We think that by holding the light, we look only to get a glimpse, not being responsible for what is taking place. Yet by our distant silence, we inadvertently hold the lamp for the persecutors, only to find ourselves take part in this gruesome affair to literally kill God.
I do believe that Caravaggio, being aware of his sinful state, was a bit of both. He stood before Christ as both distant, and a persecutor perhaps by ignorance or full knowledge who knows? It’s difficult to say he’s repentant in this painting and I’ve no doubt it awakened within him some sort of sorrow for who he’d become.
I think most of us are Caravaggio in this painting. We’ve certainly played our part as every other character. But all those characters were sure of their position whereas Caravaggio was not. The world is littered with those of us who are idle and distant Christians who don’t want to get involved.
We stand there holding our “lukewarm” lamps in the distance, reluctant to take part and intervene. As I said before, but worth repeating, we help shed light for the persecutors of Christ by our lukewarm approach.
As Martin Luther King once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Sometimes, I ask myself, where do I stand? My own heart is far from God and many times I’ve sat in silence and simply observed the betrayal around me. Many times I failed to intervene, getting to know God and becoming closer to him as a result.
Let us examine our hearts to see how distant we are from God. Caravaggio was so close to Christ at the betrayal of Judas, and yet spiritually, his heart remained a great distance. Let us ask God for the Grace to close that distance and become his dear friend, not his lukewarm onlooker. Let us imitate Christ, and become the betrayed, not the cause of betrayal.