I recently finished reading Francine Prose’s book “Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles.” The book is an easy to read summation of the artist’s life and accomplishments. Prose’s text makes for an enjoyable read, but it is the artist who captivates the imagination. Caravaggio’s artistry represents one of those breakthrough moments in human culture. He was able to communicate a vision of the potentiality of human creativity that remains, despite his many imitators, unique. He also was a scoundrel and therefore the details of his personal life capture our attention in the same manner that one "just can’t look away" from a traffic accident. It is not just his paintings that make us stop and stare, it is also the man, the artist himself.
Prose’s book reminded me of another book on Caravaggio, Jonathon Harr’s “The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece.” Harr's book is about the discovery of a lost Caravaggio that had been hidden away for decades in a Jesuit residence in Ireland. The painting was a depiction of the betrayal of Christ by Judas, known as “The Taking of Christ.” The painting is best described as a dramatic interplay of light and shadow. The figures depicted in the painting are to the mind’s eye motionless, but the viewer might anticipate that at any moment the characters will begin to move and break free of their frozen gesticulations. The fact that Christ is placed off center in the painting heightens the drama. We have to intentionally look for him in the maelstrom of activity, resisting all the while the distraction of the polished armor of soldiers, one of whose hands reaches over the arm of Judas, trapping Christ in a threatening embrace. Christ’s pained face seems passive in the face of the kiss of his betrayer. He does not recoil, but accepts the gesture. His hands are knitted together, the fingers intertwined as if in knots, perhaps to indicate that this moment must take place, and so the Son binds himself first to the Father’s will and then to the will of his captors.
To the rear of Christ a figure is depicted in flight from the horrific circumstances, his mouth agape, hands raised upward, and his red cloak billowing behind him, serving as a frame highlighting the tragic encounter of Christ and Judas. The presence of this fleeing figure tells us that Judas is not the only one who betrays Christ. His followers flee, leaving him to face the agony of his sufferings alone. On the opposite end of the painting a man voyeuristically casts not only his gaze, but light, his uplifted arm holds a lantern that sheds its glow on the scene. It is that light that enables us to see, should he lower that lantern, all would return to darkness. The manner in which light is cast from that painted lantern tells us that what Caravaggio intends for us to see is not just a painting, but a divine revelation and we should all tremble at what is being revealed.
In the first three days of Holy Week, the Gospel readings at Mass highlight the tragic figure of Judas Iscariot. Judas was one of the twelve chosen by Christ to lead the new Israel. This election did not prevent Judas from handing Christ over to his enemies, an irrevocable decision that would lead to Christ’s crucifixion and death. The Gospel presents little about Judas’ motivations for his betrayal, except for a passage in the Gospel of John which questions his integrity makes him out to be a thief. This reference seems to be made in hindsight, a character flaw noticed after the fact of his betrayal, a point of fact meant to help us, and perhaps those who had known Judas make sense of his actions. The Gospel is also insistent that what takes place happens in accord with a divine plan. We are even told that at one point Satan entered him. But, rather than softening the blow, all this has had the consequent effect of making the impact all the more harsh. How could he then be considered responsible for his actions? Why was he, among all those who had followed Christ, chosen for this nefarious purpose? It must be said that Judas was not isolated in his betrayal. At the moment of his profoundest distress, Christ was for the most part alone, bereft of the companions that he himself had chosen and called his friends.
Even Peter, the Lord’s rock, would deny him.
Yet despite all this, it is Judas’ betrayal that haunts the imagination of the Church. Dante had Judas languishing for eternity in the jaws of Satan. Our current therapeutic culture insists that we be more kind to the son of Iscariot, but for most the Church’s life, pious sentiment has not been so generous. The Church’s insight in regards to Judas has held that much more problematic than his betrayal is his apparent despair. Of all the followers of Christ who had left him at his hour of greatest need, it seems that it was only Judas who came to the conclusion that he could not be forgiven for this offense. It was this despair, demonstrated in the tragic taking of his own life, that more so than his betrayal, explains the meaning of the Christ’s words that it would have been better that his betrayer had never been born.
Perhaps Judas so haunts our imaginations because he represents a terrifying distillation of the dark potentiality within all of us. All of us know that there is within each of us the possibility that we might say no to the Lord, that we might deny him; that we too might turn against him or run away. For most of us, our betrayals and denials of Christ will never be as dramatic as those of Judas or Peter, but we do have to come to terms with what we have done and failed to do. For this reason we still might tremble upon hearing the story of Christ’s betrayal because we know, and cannot deny, this same potential is within ourselves.
Caravaggio’s life was filled with dark potentiality that became real action. All his artistic accomplishment and skill cannot mask that he was a man who did terrible things. His paintings all demonstrate that he very well understood our fallen nature. But his best works also reveal the uncanny nature of grace. The artist knew that the betrayal of Christ is but one part of a story, and we shouldn’t make the same mistake as Judas and think that it all ends there. The whole of the story reveals God’s willingness to forgive us even after we have done our worst. Having shared our nature, God in Christ could see the depth to which we had fallen and the extent to which we all needed his divine power to restore us. God in Christ was willing to effect this restoration even though it was undeserved. This extraordinary gesture on the part of God towards us is hard to believe and understand, but the dense particularity of the cross reveals not only the Gospel in its climax, but in its totality. Caravaggio’s artistry demonstrates that he could see this revelation as it manifested itself in both shadows and light. Can we?
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.