By John H. Carroll
Catholic News Service
Cardinals, priests, rogues, art historians, aristocrats and even the Irish Republican Army are involved in the story told in The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece.
The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece
by Jonathan Harr. Random House (New York, 2005)
Pride of place in the National Gallery of Ireland goes to the priceless Baroque painting, “The Taking of Christ,” by Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. In this intriguing tale an American author, Jonathan Harr, tells how this masterpiece disappeared from a grand Roman palazzo, remained hidden for more than a century and now rests in the Irish capital.
Click on photo for full view from the wonderful Web Gallery of Art
From the little we know about Caravaggio’s life, it appears this creator of magnificent “holy pictures” was in fact a roguish vagabond. He was born in 1571 in the Milan area, probably in the village of Caravaggio. He settled in Rome, where he obtained commissions from the hierarchy to paint expressive Gospel scenes.
However, Harr indicates that the young artist was also active in Rome’s corrupt demimonde. In 1606, Pope Paul V exiled Caravaggio from Rome after the artist killed a Roman aristocrat in a duel. In exile the artist continued to paint impressive religious masterpieces, such as the “Beheading of John the Baptist,” now in the Cathedral of St. John in Malta. Finally in 1610 Caravaggio died on a Mediterranean beach en route to Rome.
In the following four centuries, one of Caravaggio’s greatest paintings was lost, even though for most of the 20th century it was hung in plain sight. Two young Italian art students, Francesca Cappelletti and Laura Testa, discovered that Caravaggio had painted “The Taking of Christ” for Cardinal Girolamo Mattei and his brothers, Ciriaco and Asdrubale, members of the Roman aristocracy. But the young Italian scholars could not locate the painting in any collection.
Now the focus of the search turns to the British Isles. During the Napoleonic era, the Mattei family fell on hard times and sold some art treasures to a wealthy Scot who installed the paintings in his country home.
A young English Oxford graduate, Capt. Percival Lea-Wilson, an inspector in the Royal Irish Constabulary, married Marie Monica Ryan of Ireland in 1914. During the 1916 Irish Republican uprising in Dublin, Lea-Wilson abused IRA prisoners. That organization has a long memory. In 1920, unidentified gunmen shot and killed Lea-Wilson.
His distraught widow began to study at Trinity College and became a pediatrician. She bought a painting titled “The Betrayal of Christ” at an estate sale. It was attributed to a Dutch painter, Gerard Honthorst, who painted in the Italian style under the name Gherardo Della Notte. Eventually she donated the painting to the Jesuits of the House of St. Ignatius in Dublin.
Decades later, the Jesuits decided to have their nondescript “The Betrayal of Christ” cleaned at the National Gallery of Ireland. Sergio Benedetti, an Italian-born and -educated art restorer, undertook the task and discovered the missing masterpiece. The Jesuits loaned the painting to the National Gallery for indefinite exhibition and in 1993 an international group gathered in the National Gallery of Ireland to celebrate the discovery and exhibition of the priceless masterpiece, “The Taking of Christ” by Caravaggio.
By a curious coincidence, Cardinal Mattei was “protector of Ireland” in the papal hierarchy. He and members of his circle must have had connections with the likes of such Irish exiles in Rome as Hugh O’Neill, the prince of Ulster, and Archbishop Peter Lombard of Armagh, the primate of Ireland. Some of the Irish may have seen “The Taking of Christ” in the Mattei palazzo long before its disappearance and discovery in Dublin.
Harr is the author of A Civil Action and lives in Northampton, Mass., where he has taught writing at Smith College.
Carroll is a retired civil servant.