In Odessa, in the “Museum of Western and Eastern Art,” was, and we hope still is, one of the numerous versions of “The Taking of Christ”, the representation of the New Testament scene of betrayal and consequent arrest of Jesus.
The scene takes place in the darkest hour, in a literal and metaphorical sense. Christ is “patient and humble”, while events precipitate after Judas has betrayed him with a kiss. The soldiers capture Jesus, while John flees with his arms raised.
Behind, to illuminate the scene, a lantern rises, supported by a young man in which we recognizes the self-portrait of Caravaggio. It was thanks to a commission of the Roman noble Ciriaco Mattei in 1602 that Michelangiolo Merisi invented this extraordinary composition, which became very popular, and was reproduced and rethought by many artists in the following years. So much so that the original version was somehow lost.
The original composition by Caravaggio was in fact described in detail as early as the seventeenth century, but for a long time the painting had disappeared, it was thought it had been lost and only copies remained.
The situation changed in 1993, when the painting now in Ireland, in Dublin, was proposed as the original, its attribution changed from by Gerrit van Honthorst to by Caravaggio after the analysis carried out by a scholar restorer.
Today, more than 12 copies of this painting are known and Dublin’s primacy is much questioned. It is kept low for reasons of diplomacy, but almost everyone is inclined to go back to attributing the Irish “Taking” to the Dutch painter, who faithfully copied the Master.
Which could the original then be? One of the most interesting versions was in the Odessa Museum. And we hope it will always be there and will remain there, even if the terrifying images that reach us from Ukraine, and the continuous bombing of cultural institutions, make us fear the worst.
The painting did not have an easy life either in the past: as soon as it arrived from France from Odessa, thanks to a gift made to the Tsar and his subsequent donation to the Museum, the 1917 Revolution and the subsequent civil war broke out. Odessa was conquered and lost to the Red Army several times. During the Second World War, the city was heavily bombed and then occupied in 1941 by Romanian and Nazi troops.
The painting, probably because it was then considered a copy, was not on the list of works of art that the museum had decided to save. Nothing was known about the painting until it was unexpectedly returned by the Roman Catholic Church to the Soviet authorities in June 1945, a full fourteen months after the liberation of the city.
After a first restoration in 1951 there was a second one in 2008, the year in which the painting was the subject of a commissioned theft, perhaps because it was understood, during the restoration, that the work could be much more than a copy. The canvas was cut from the frame and removed rolled up, as is easy to guess from the marks left on the artwork. Its rescue dates back to 2010 which was followed by a long restoration operation to rejoin the canvas with what was left on the frame.
The analyses made on these occasions have made it possible to advanced some more concrete hypotheses of autography or at least of a execution very close to that of the original.
But it is not the only copy on which hypotheses of this type are made.
Also in Florence there is a version, on which Art-Test made the scientific investigations, currently preserved in the Palatine Gallery, and which presents some very interesting “pentimenti” in Xray-image compared to the visible composition, which would deserve more in-depth studies, free from partisan interests, and brave.
In the meantime, we hope that Caravaggio’s will remain the only “Taking of Odessa”.