The Taking of Christ

Masterpiece Thought Lost for Centuries Is In Exhibit

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

For nearly 60 years, the painting "The Taking of Christ" had gathered dust on the dining-room wall of a Jesuit residence in Dublin. Generations of priests had eaten supper under the tragic figure of Jesus being betrayed to the Roman soldiers by Judas' kiss.

It was only during a cleaning by an art conservator nine years ago that the painting was discovered to be that rarest of works - a masterpiece by the 17th-century Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio that had been believed missing for 200 years.

News of the discovery of the missing Caravaggio, one of only about 60 known works by the Baroque master, took the art world by storm. Cleaned and restored, "The Taking of Christ" now hangs on permanent loan in the National Gallery of Ireland.

Its upcoming exhibition at the McMullen Museum of Art, under a special concession granted by the Society of Jesus of Ireland, will be the first showing of the painting in North America.

The story behind the lost-and-found artwork adds to the appeal of a striking painting that represents Caravaggio at the top of his form, said McMullen Museum Director Nancy Netzer.

"I think there's a sense of excitement generated when a work of art that has been well known for centuries through its copies is all of a sudden discovered," Netzer said.

Research into its provenance indicates the painting took a winding route to the Jesuit house in Dublin. "The Taking of Christ" was painted in 1602 for the Roman palace of the Mattei family and stayed there for 200 years, when it was mistakenly labeled as a work by the Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst, and sold under that label to a Scotsman, William Hamilton Nisbit.

The painting was sold for less than $1,000 in the 1920s to Dublin physician Marie Lea-Wilson, who donated it in the 1930s to the Jesuit community residence on Lower Neeson Street in Dublin. There it hung, under the Honthorst label, until nine years ago when the National Gallery of Ireland's senior conservator, summoned to clean the painting, recognized the work as a lost Caravaggio.

Netzer said the re-discovery of "The Taking of Christ" has been a boon to art lovers.

"You get a sense of Caravaggio's work technique, as well as information about what an authentic Caravaggio is, which is significant since there are so few Caravaggios around," she said. "And it's a gorgeous painting, an absolutely gorgeous painting."

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