Betrayed with a Kiss …

At the end of last year I went to see the ‘Beyond Caravaggio’ exhibition at the National Gallery in London.

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It was woefully disappointing *.

(In the afternoon I went to see the ‘Abstract Expressionism’ at the Royal Academy, which was superb, so that was ok.)

But there was one work in the ‘Beyond Caravaggio’ which more than made up for any disappointment. It was so utterly breathtaking in its mastery and theatrical impact that it made the whole visit more than worthwhile.

And this is it –

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This painting by Caravaggio (1571-1610) shows the point at which Judas betrays Christ to the soldiers of the Sanhedrin, by means of a kiss. This is a popular composition in Renaissance and Baroque Catholic art as it is a vital element in the events leading to the crucifixion of Christ.

It also makes for a particularly poignant scene. To be betrayed with a kiss – how painful would that be?

Here is a much earlier version by Giotto (1266-1337), ‘The Father of the Renaissance’. 

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Almost exactly 300 years earlier, Giotto manages to convey the intensity and intimacy of the betrayal. This is in sharp contrast to the tumult brewing around them as the soldiers and Apostles jostle in the chaos of what is about to happen.

Giotto highlights the central pair by means of Judas’ fantastic yellow cloak. Judas uses his cloak to envelop Christ, thereby combining the two in a single visual entity. At this time in Christian Europe, Jews and prostitutes were required to wear yellow as a sign of identification. (The Nazis continued this tradition in the concentration camps with their iniquitous classification system when they chose yellow as the colour of Jewish identification.)

In the Catholic art of the Renaissance and Baroque, figures central to the narrative are portrayed with ‘attributes’ – objects or colours which aid the illiterate in identifying them. Since he is identified as a Jew and not a Christian, Judas’ attribute is a yellow cloak. The use of yellow to identify the betrayer of Christ meant that the colour in turn became associated with traitors and cowards – ‘yellow-bellied’.

But the Giotto is Renaissance and the Caravaggio is Baroque. And Baroque is the art of the theatrical, of intense light and shade, of breathtaking drama.

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And this is what makes Caravaggio’s ‘The Taking of Christ’ so transfixing. It is large in scale and standing before it I could not help but be drawn into this awful moment as Christ appears to back away from what He knows must happen. The crossing of Christ’s hands is particularly expressive of His torment.

Just as Giotto does, Caravaggio expresses the tumult around the two central figures. But we do not view this scene at a distance. We are right there in the front row, as the lantern attempts to illuminate the dark, black surroundings and the light bounces off the soldiers’ armour.

‘The Taking of Christ’ has it all – drama, turmoil, intimacy, poignancy and above all, the pain of betrayal.

I could have stood in front of it all day.

*The theme of the ‘Beyond Caravaggio’ exhibition was Caravaggio’s influence on Baroque painting.  And this influence was incredible, but also particularly ironic as Caravaggio would punch anyone he thought to be imitating his style. Unique for the time, Caravaggio never had a studio or apprentices and he would have been aghast at the idea of followers in Italy, Holland, Flanders, France and Spain. There were 5 paintings by Caravaggio in the exhibition and the rest were by the Caravaggisti – as his followers came to be termed. Trouble was, all the paintings on show were rather sub-standard. Except for the one!

6 Comments

  1. I often think an exhibition is a success if I’m struck by one particular painting, and I can certainly see why you fell for that Caravaggio. It’s so involving, as you say, but I often think you have to be in the mood for his work – a bit like being in the mood for a dark and gloomy film. How interesting to contrast it with the Giotto which has so much more air in it and I find the stronger painting for that. That yellow cloak (and why it’s yellow) is fascinating.

  2. It is isn’t it.
    I completely agree with the one painting theory – I can often only manage a few. I want to really take them in, let them sink into me.
    I’m always amazed when people think Caravaggio is dark. There is so much light to him too!
    And the Giotto is wonderful – and so early.
    Thank you for your insightful and interesting comment.

  3. Fascinating post. I had no idea that that is where the association of yellow with cowardice comes from. The passive acceptance and stillness of Christ in the painting with all that tumult around him is very touching. I love the idea of Caravaggio punching people who imitated him!

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