Caravaggio Brought to Light; Renaissance Reborn

«The Taking of Christ» Is Rescued

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ROME, OCT. 1, 2009 ( Tuesday, Sept. 29, was Caravaggio’s birthday. As his name, Michelangelo Merisi, suggests, the Milanese artist was born in 1571 on the feast of the archangels.

While no one would accuse Caravaggio of being of angelic disposition, the body of art he left humanity certainly transmits some of the most powerful messages of our faith.

I celebrated Caravaggio’s birthday in Dublin, in front of one his works that I had never seen in person before, “The Taking of Christ.» Of all of Caravaggio’s works, this canvas not only tells a dramatic incident from years past, but was also subject of a modern detective story.

The work was painted by Caravaggio around 1601-3, the years when he lived in the home of his powerful patron Ciriaco Mattei. He had just completed his major religious commissions at Santa Maria del Popolo and San Luigi dei Francesi, unveiling his revolutionary technique of using light and shadow to enhance the drama of his sacred stories.

The Mattei collection was gradually sold off as the family resources dwindled, and even the archive or accounts and inventories had been moved away from Rome. Even Caravaggio’s name had been forgotten in the annals of art history, relegated, in the words of Italian art historian Roberto Longhi, to the position of “the least known painter of Italian art.»

Thanks to the tireless research of Longhi and later Sir Denis Mahon, the works of Caravaggio were gathered from dusty storerooms, cleansed of centuries of grime and painstakingly catalogued and authenticated. 

Despite lifetimes of work, a few remained tantalizingly hidden, extolled in the yellowed pages of old biographies and guide books, but no longer in their original homes.

“The Taking of Christ” was one such prize; mentioned in several contemporary sources, even lovingly described, art historians marveled at how such a celebrated work could go astray. Depressing fears about the fate of the painting loomed as one had been destroyed in the bombing of Dresden, and others, so darkened with age as to be unrecognizable, were simply reattributed and disappeared.

On my way to Dublin I read Jonathan Harr’s riveting book “The Lost Painting,” which recounts the extraordinary story of several converging paths that would return this painting to the world in 1993. Two enterprising archivists, one sharp-eyed restorer, an English nobleman in love with Italian art and a Jesuit priest with a profound devotion to tradition and beauty all participated in the discovery on this work, now hanging in the National Gallery in Dublin on indefinite loan from the Jesuits.

Providence even granted me the privilege of running into the priest, Father Noel Barber, who brought the “Taking of Christ” for cleaning, thereby restoring a Caravaggio work to the world. I couldn’t help but think that ironically, the Jesuits were one of the few new 17th century orders to never have commissioned a work from Caravaggio, yet are the only order to own his work today.

The painting, proudly displayed in the National Gallery, is unique in Caravaggio’s oeuvre as the only work to have a visible light source. The powerful light in Caravaggio’s art usually comes from a mysterious font, hinting at the role of the Holy Spirit in illuminating conversion, martyrdom and evangelization.

Caravaggio was still flaunting his extraordinary skill at still life painting, apparent in the metal armor of the soldiers, the rich blue wool of Christ’s robe and the opaque paper of the lantern. But the dazzling virtuosity of his brush pales before his narrative power. 

From the right, three soldiers crowd roughly toward Christ, with a figure at the end holding aloft a lamp to illuminate the scene. The absolute center of the painting however, remains empty, heads and arms leaving a large gap at the very focal point of the work.

This brief caesura heightens the tension of the left-hand part of the work. Judas, his face distorted, leans toward Christ to bestow his kiss of betrayal. The contrast between Christ and Judas could not be greater. Cheek to cheek with Jesus, Judas thrusts himself forward, actively perpetrating this ultimate treachery. Christ on the other hand, with downcast eyes and hands still clasped in prayer, expresses both the profound sadness at Judas’ act as well as the acceptance of his passion. On the far left, St. John runs away, and his red robe, grasped by the soldier forms a scarlet curtain around Jesus and Judas.

More than just a boon to the art world, this missing Caravaggio is a gift to the faithful. In this crowded violent scene, the figure holding up the lantern peering into the chaos represents Caravaggio himself, witness and recorder of this dark happening. We too, standing before this canvas, become witnesses to how Christ was betrayed, persecuted and abandoned, and as Caravaggio retells the story for us to see, we too must render this event visible in our lives. 

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Giving back

Truth be told, I wasn’t in Dublin only to celebrate Caravaggio’s birth. I had been lured to the Emerald Isle by an invitation to speak to the Legatus association, an organization bearing many similarities to a Renaissance initiative. 

Over the past couple of years, I have had the opportunity to meet many members of this alliance of Catholic businessmen whose mission is to «to study, live and spread the faith in our business, professional and personal lives,» and many of their stories of faith and success recall the histories of the Medici and other great Florentine families.

Renaissance Florence boasted unprecedented commercial success. In what appeared to be a town of boundless opportunity, businesses flourished and luxury goods proliferated as more and more of her citizens became successful bankers, merchants and even artists.

Many of what would become Florence’s greatest families immigrated to the city during the Middle Ages, living in slum quarters and doing menial jobs as they dreamed of a better life. By the 15th century many had achieved wealth, status and success beyond their wildest dreams.

In a world where faith was part of the very air they breathed, and the churches around every corner reminded people of the spiritual and practical sustenance the Church had offered people during their struggling years, the business elite of Florence looked for ways to give back what they had received.

Just as they were leaders in the business community, they also wanted to be good models for the community of the faithful.

So the Company of the Magi was born, an organization of Florence’s most successful citizens, who met regularly to pray together, share ideas and plan charitable projects.

They took the name of the Magi, the three kings of old, who used their wealth, whether monetary or intellectual, to honor the Christ Child. The Company of the Magi sponsored orphanages, helped dower poor girls and once a year regaled the Florentine with a spectacular procession of its most illustrious citizens parading through the streets dressed as the Three Kings. 

In many ways, Legatus resembles a modern-day Company of the Magi. 

Derived from the Latin verb meaning “to dispatch,» Legatus also describes an ambassador, and the members of this group strive to represent Christ not just in their private moments, but in the workplace, among friends and at home.

Founded in 1987 by Domino’s Pizza Chairman Thomas Monaghan, Legatus brings together CEOs, company presidents and business owners for spiritual and intellectual enrichment; once a month they meet for Mass, dinner and a speaker, and there are annual pilgrimages and conferences. 

The Eucharist is at the heart of the organization. The idea came to Mr. Monaghan after receiving Communion from the late John Paul II and the meeting always s
tarts with Mass. Afterward, the members recite the prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas imploring the Eucharist to, “be a helmet of faith and a shield of good will.

«May it purify me from evil ways and put an end to my evil passions.

«May it bring me charity and patience, humility and obedience,
and growth in the power to do good.” 

David Fisher, a young CEO from the Fort Worth chapter, says Legatus has been “a real blessing for me.” He was particularly struck by “the importance that the organization places on the sacraments with our monthly meetings, and with the summits and with the pilgrimages, which help me live my life in a much more faith-filled way.”

Legatus also emphasizes education and greater knowledge of one’s faith. John Hale, owner of Corporate Travel Service and member of the Detroit chapter of Legatus, explained, “We are better ambassadors when we are knowledgeable about our faith. What better way to know our faith than to learn at the feet of the best Catholic scholars, theologians, writers and professors who speak regularly at the meetings and conferences?”

Over the years Legatus members have heard speeches from Roman cardinals, entertainment celebrities and political powerhouses; their interests are as diverse as their businesses, which gives them a very «catholic» perspective on the world around them.

Another important theme in Legatus is fellowship and family. Spouses are granted full membership and Legatus plans events for families to participate together. As John Hale recalls, “When my wife was pregnant with our fifth child, most of the world thinly veiled their distaste with yet another child. When we would attend the monthly Legatus meetings and visit with member friends who were blessed with 12 plus children, we were certainly affirmed by their witness to the faith through an openness to children and family. It has made all the difference in our business and in our family.”

Legatus has over 60 chapters in the United States and has expanded into Canada, Poland and Ireland. Visiting with the Ireland chapter this week, I was struck again by both the centrality of the liturgy in Legatus events and the commitment to live one’s faith in every aspect of life, common to all the members I have encountered.  

In Legatus, the finest spirit of the Renaissance has found its own rebirth.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic studies program. She can be reached at 

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