Words Edel Cassidy
The Taking of Christ, 1602 Oil on canvas. 133.5 x 169.5 cm.
On indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson St., Dublin, which acknowledges the kind generosity of the late Dr Marie Lea-Wilson.
Photo © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin
Caravaggio’s dramatic painting The Taking of Christ depicts the events of the night of Holy Thursday; Judas has identified Christ with a kiss, and the temple guards move to make their arrest as another disciple flees the scene, which is lit by the moon. The story behind how and why this painting came to hang on the walls of The National Gallery of Ireland is an equally dramatic story.
It’s hard to imagine that this emotionally charged painting was misattributed for much of its history. The composition depicts one of the most disturbing episodes of the New Testament – the moment Judas singles out Jesus to the Roman soldiers with a kiss. A compelling image of dark and light, of struggle and grace, a disturbing scene perfectly suited to the temperament of Caravaggio, who loved drama. There are seven figures in the painting: from left to right they are John, Jesus, Judas and three soldiers. A lantern is held by the man at the far right; this is believed to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio, presumably representing St Peter, who would betray Jesus by denying him and then go on to bring the light of Christ to the world.
Given Caravaggio’s turbulent life, it is perhaps coincidental that the loss and rediscovery of the masterpiece should have its origins in an act of violence. Marie Lea-Wilson donated the painting in the 1930s to the Jesuit Fathers in Dublin in gratitude for the support she received from Father Thomas Finlay, a Jesuit priest, following the shooting of her husband by the IRA in June 1920. The whereabouts of the painting had been unknown for about 200 years. A Scotsman, William Hamilton Nisbet, bought it in Italy in 1802 thinking it was a copy by the Dutch artist Gerard van Honthorst.
After the break-up of the Nisbet collection, the painting was purchased in Scotland for £8 by an Irish paediatrician, Marie Lea-Wilson, who was married to Percival Lea-Wilson, an English-born Royal Irish Constabulary Officer. In 1916 the couple lived in Dublin, as Lea-Wilson was attached to the army. In the aftermath of the Easter Rising, he was put in charge of 250 prisoners, including Thomas Clarke and Michael Collins. Reports from the prisoners accused Lea-Wilson of verbally abusing and taunting the captives. He certainly made many enemies, and four years later he was assassinated by four IRA men as he left his home in Gorey, Co. Wexford.
When handed over to the Jesuits, the painting remained hanging in the dining room of the Jesuit building in Leeson Street, Dublin, until it was sent to be cleaned in the 1990s. It was during this process that it was discovered to be the lost Caravaggio masterpiece, The Taking of Christ.
When the painting was given to the National Gallery of Ireland on indefinite loan, it was presented to the Chairperson of the Gallery’s Board, Dr William Finlay, the grand-nephew of Father Thomas Finlay, to whom Marie Lea-Wilson had given the painting.