A Picture Of Mystery

Caravaggio’s masterpiece was discovered after 60 anonymous years decorating a Dublin priest’s dining room

By Elaine Walsh

The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio
The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio

The story of Caravaggio’s “Taking of Christ” may not have all the twists of The DaVinci Code, but it is a tale of religion, politics and, yes, even murder. Now considered a treasure of The National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, the 17th century painting’s whereabouts eluded art historians for over 200 years. Finding it in Ireland took a bit of serendipity, and a Caravaggio expert’s diligent work.

For two centuries, art historians believed the Caravaggio masterpiece, which portrays Christ being betrayed to Roman soldiers by Judas’ kiss, was lost. Then Sergio Benedetti, a leading member of the National Gallery’s restoration and conservation team, was summoned to the Jesuit House on Leeson Street in central Dublin in 1990. The home was a modest one, not an opulent Ryan Homes found in some areas. According to Father Noel Barber, the Superior of the local Jesuit community, “the house was being renovated and I thought if we were doing up the walls and carpets, we should also take a look at cleaning up the paintings in the house.” Benedetti, an expert in 17th century Italian painting, was more than a little interested by the large dark painting that had hung over priests taking their dinner in the house for more than 60 years.

But Benedetti’s sense that this painting might be the long-lost Caravaggio wasn’t easy to prove. After a thick layer of varnish and soot was cleaned off the picture, intense research was carried out and numerous Caravaggio experts were called in from abroad. Eventually, tell-tale signs of Caravaggio’s distinct method of working and the dramatic chiaroscuro style (bright highlights set off against heavy dark areas)associated with the master led to agreement on all sides that this painting was indeed The Taking of Christ. The immediate question was what to do with it?

Humiliation and Death

How this painting arrived in the Jesuit house in the first place is a story Father Barber likes to refer to as “the murder behind the discovery.” It was donated to the The Leeson Street Jesuit community almost 70 years ago by Dr. Marie Lea Wilson, the widow of Percival Lee Wilson.

Percival Wilson was in the Royal Irish Constabulary during the 1916 Uprising. As Father Barber explains, “He had humiliated Irish prisoners in his custody at the time. His character briefly appears in the film Michael Collins. Consequently he became a marked man and was killed by the IRA in 1920 in Wexford.”

Dr. Wilson was still trying to recover from the brutal death of her husband when she visited Edinburgh in the early 1920’s. There, she bought a painting attributed to a 17th century Dutch painter named Gerard Von Honthorst, paying less than the equivalent of $1,000. Back in Dublin, Dr. Wilson turned to a Jesuit priest named Father Finlay for help and advice. Although it appears she never truly recovered from the loss of her husband, she gave Father Finlay the misattributed Von Honthorst as a sign of her gratitude in the 1930s.

Father Barber sums up the story simply: “Had Percival Lea Wilson not humiliated the Republican prisoners in 1916, he would not have been murdered; had he not been murdered, his wife would not have sought counselling from Fr. Finlay; had she not become Fr. Finlay’s client, she would not have given The Taking of Christ to the Leeson Street Jesuits.”

Close to Home

When the painting was finally rediscovered, Father Barber had no doubts about where it should go. “Once I heard that the painting was actually an original Caravaggio, my reaction was to make sure it should at all costs stay in Ireland, and that its home should be the Irish National Gallery. If the painting had been sold, it would almost certainly have gone out of the country and Ireland would have lost a priceless treasure. The option of selling it was never seriously considered.”

It was a generous move indeed for the Jesuits to give the painting to National Gallery on indefinite loan. Experts put the painting’s value at £25 to £30 million. In a final twist, when Father Barber officially presented the painting to the National Gallery, he gave it to its Board Chairperson, Dr. William Finlay – the grand nephew of Father Thomas Finlay, who Marie Lea Wilson originally gave the painting to!

Many experts agree that the painting is one of Caravaggio’s finest works. Caravaggio lived a stormy and passionate life, worthy of a blockbuster mini-series, making it fitting that his painting was rediscovered in a way befitting a detective story. Don’t leave Dublin without seeing The Taking of Christ with your own eyes – no visit would be complete without it.

The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio is in the National Gallery of Ireland, Merrion Square, Dublin. Open Mon – Sat 9:30am – 5:30pm (open til 8:30 Thurs evening), Sunday Noon – 5:30pm. Admission is free. Phone 011 353 1 661 5133

Reproduction of “The Taking Of Christ” used by permission of The National Gallery