In 2002, I spent a night in jail after getting swept up in a raid on a tiny Mexican bar. It was not the first or last time I was locked up but it was the most memorable.
The operation was spearheaded by some 40 riot police with shields, ski masks, and machine guns. Cops outnumbered patrons five-to-one and most arrested were unsavory but harmless drunks. We went down on weapons possession charges, and for vague crimes like “association with criminals,” an offense I commit every time I take a photograph of a gang-member, or some businessman who hasn’t paid his taxes. After much verbal sparring with detectives in a stinking, overcrowded jail, the charges were mysteriously dropped and I was cut loose. But the impression of dozens of cops in body armor storming a claustrophobic cantina is not easily forgotten.
Anyone who has been in close quarters with heavily armed police or soldiers will feel the physical weight of the law pressing down on the figure of Jesus in the 1602 painting, The Taking of Christ, by Michelangelo de Merisi, better known as Caravaggio.
Arrests are rarely civilized affairs, and besides details like weapons involved and laws cited, little has changed since the early 17th Century, as Caravaggio’s painting testifies. Police actions provoke panic, and street cops working with shady, paid informants — in this case Judas – are capable of atrocities that would boggle the minds of human rights advocates. Christ, who the Book of Mark says passively accepted his arrest, appears crestfallen and a bit afraid in the painting. He is soft, human, and common, nothing like the Messiah many imagine. Two soldiers in black, well-worn armor lean toward him; worried he might try to escape. Jesus the Criminal’s hands, with their intertwined fingers, seem to await handcuffs. Judas not only poses to kiss Christ, but also places a strong hand on his shoulder, as if to help detain him.
Caravaggio doesn’t just offer us the moment of truth, as it were. The implied violence of the scene foreshadows the future. No routine arrest, this is a brutal takedown, ordered by the highest authorities, of a cult leader whose teachings threatened the social fabric of one of Rome’s occupied territories. Because we know the story, and because the tension in the work is so tangible, we know what’s to come: interrogations, brutal public torture, and of course, execution.
Caravaggio was no stranger to run-ins with the law. Accused of killing at least two men and having done several stints in prison, the painter put his own multiple arrests on canvas when he interpreted this Biblical episode known to every Sunday school student.
But Caravaggio’s telling of the tale is not for children.
It contains, within a common religious scene, the brutality of an age, according to Peter Robb, author of M : The Man Who Became Caravaggio.
“In a time of inquisition, censorship, spying and torture in the Christian world, secret betrayal, anonymous denunciations, nocturnal arrest and of exemplary public whippings, humiliations, beheadings and burnings alive for crimes of opinion and morality, the arrest of Christ … was peculiarly charged,” Robb writes in his 1998 book.
Compositionally, it is a cramped work, with all the faces in the piece facing left, except for Christ’s, which faces right. It was meant as a reminder for the faithful that the most popular figure in religious history had gone against a doomed, uncivilized world as he led his ministry through the cities and villages of the desert. Now, he would pay dearly.
“Putting religion aside, the painting is a dramatic, visual explanation of what is meant by the common phrase ‘full force of the law.'”
Putting religion aside, the painting is a dramatic, visual explanation of what is meant by the common phrase “full force of the law,” particularly when applied by legions of government-paid killers in places like Waco, Texas; San Salvador de Atenco, in Mexico; and perhaps, right now, in Iran, Honduras and Pakistan. For this is not a painting about Jesus. Its subject is the sheer force of authority applied to the destruction a single man who might be anyone, from Che Guevara to Malcolm X.
Caravaggio is mostly remembered as a rogue genius with high-placed patrons; a man who bullied his artistic rivals, killed others, and roamed the streets after dark looking for fights only to get bailed out by his contacts. Indeed, if art history texts are to be believed, Mike Tyson appears tame alongside Caravaggio, rape conviction and all.
One contemporary wrote of the painter, ” … when he’s worked for a fortnight he goes out for a couple of months with his rapier at his side … looking for fights or arguments.”
He died before he reached the age of 40, allegedly of a fever, but possibly killed off by enemies.
In spite of his image as a criminal — probably half-truth and half fiction spun by artistic rivals — two things are worth noting about Caravaggio, his work, and his impact on the history of art.
He painted The Taking of Christ less than 40 years after Michelangelo Buonarroti died. The younger painter’s style – realism and high-contrast lighting directed with dramatic precision against haunting, black backgrounds – changed art forever. His work made the Sistine Chapel’s figures and religious scenes look like clumsy, antiquated, cartoons. In an age of intolerance, Caravaggio almost single-handedly killed off traditional religious art and made money off the Church in the process, all the while behaving like a savage.
It must have been a wild dance and it produced wild art. Caravaggio never made preliminary sketches, preferring to paint only from life, a radical technique at the time. He used male and female prostitutes, crooks, alley thugs, and his rich-kid hooligan friends as models. Art critic Robert Hughes wrote, “There was art before him, and art after him, and they were not the same.”
Moreover, if delinquency, midnight street brawls, killings, arrests, prison time, and the threat of the Inquisitionall met by the painter’s self-destructive defiance could inspire the gut-punch of The Taking of Christ, the 21st Century could use a Caravaggio to slash into the creeping morass of passionless art that has plagued us for decades. For artists are not obligated to be law-abiding citizens, as Jackson Pollock or David Alfaro Siqueiros could attest. But each must push hard against the constraints of the Age, or be forgotten, like many of Caravaggio’s more timorous contemporaries.
John Sevigny is a photographer and writer who was born in Miami and lives and works in Mexico. He is a former correspondent for the Associated Press, and for EFE News, the official information agency of the Spanish government. He has published photographs and articles in the Houston Chronicle, the San Antonio Express-News, the Dallas Morning News, and many other newspapers and magazines. As a fine art photographer, he has participated in solo and group exhibitions in Florida, California, Louisiana, New York, Minnesota and Illinois in the United States, and in Monterrey, Saltillo, and Zacatecas in Mexico. He has a blog called Gone City.
Copyright 2009 John Sevigny