Dublin Lost & Found

Caravaggio (Michelangelo da Merisi), “The Taking of Christ,” 1602,  Society of Jesus of Ireland, on loan to the National Gallery of Ireland (©National Gallery of Ireland)

On a Thursday morning in August, 1990,  Sergio Benedetti, chief restorer for the National Gallery of Ireland, and Brian Kennedy, assistant director, met at the St. Ignatius Residence, to discuss restoration of one of the Jesuit’s paintings, which for many years had been hanging in the dining room subjected to the grit and smoke of the coal-burning fireplace.  Benedetti examines the painting and keeps his surprising suspicions to himself. Later that day, he and Kennedy meet with the Director.  Jonathan Harr, in his 1990 book The Lost Painting, recreates the moment:

Raymond was Raymond Keaveney, the Director of the National Gallery of Ireland. . . Keaveney had risen through the gallery’s small ranks to become director a year and a half ago. . . 

. . . Keaveney was seated at his desk when Benedetti and Kennedy appeared at the door. Kennedy told him about their visit that morning to the Jesuit residence. He wasted no time getting to the point. “Sergio thinks one of the paintings might be by Caravaggio.”

Keaveney looked startled. “Are you serious?” he asked Benedetti. 

“It is either by him, or it is the best copy of his painting,” replied Benedetti. 

Keaveney was deeply skeptical. He had learned to respect Benedetti’s professional judgment, and he could see that Benedetti was agitated, in a state of excitement that Keaveney had rarely seen before. But to stumble across a Caravaggio in your own back yard—in Dublin, of all places—seemed wildly improbable. 

Benedetti described the painting to Keaveney. He said he had immediately recognized the subject—the betrayal of Christ by Judas. Such a painting was known to have been lost for many years, Benedetti explained, although many copies had turned up. There was one in Odessa that some art historians thought might be the original, although most regarded it as a very good copy. The quality of the one in the Jesuit residence appeared equally good. “I think it could be the original,” he told Keaveney. “I want to get it into the studio as soon as possible, to study it more closely.

With considerable detective work from Italian scholar Francesca Cappelletti, Benedetti confirmed his suspicions a year later. The two eventually compiled a dossier that tracks the painting from its execution in Rome in 1602 through the many changes in ownership across four centuries and the continent of Europe. The British National Gallery’s scientific department was delighted to examine the painting and found that it contained the same pigments as known Caravaggio paintings—lead-tin yellow, malachite, red lake, bone black, green earth mixed with walnut oil. 

Why was this such an exciting and important discovery? First, Caravaggio was a controversial figure, the bad boy of the Baroque—a genius and a rogue who was often embroiled in scuffles and brawls.  Second,by the 1960s, the Baroque had come back into style, and its painters were much sought after by dealers and connoisseurs. No artist of that era became more fashionable than Caravaggio. Perhaps that’s because the supply is so limited—only 60-80 authentic Caravaggios are thought to exist. Further, it’s not known how many canvases he painted, and no one can say for certain how many have been lost to time. A true businessman, Caravaggio did not hesitate to copy his own paintings or having them copied, repainted by other painters as was the custom before the advent of engravings and photography. Artists of the Dutch School, in particular Gerrit van Honthorst, were predominant Caravaggio copyists. There are as many as twelve copies of The Taking of Christ, which is why Benedetti was cautious in his attribution. 

The Taking of Christ is on indefinite loan to the National Gallery. Fittingly, it occupies a wall by itself. Understandably, it has become the National Gallery’s biggest draw. 

National Gallery Lost & Found exhibit

Copy Stolen in Odessa

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