Rolling Stones spent ‘ages’ admiring National Gallery’s Caravaggio, says President

Michael D Higgins helps celebrate 25 years since unveiling of ‘The Taking of Christ’

 President Michael D Higgins with Fr Noel Barber SJ, at the  National Gallery of Ireland, to mark the 25th anniversary of unveiling of Caravaggio’s ‘The Taking of Christ’. Photograph:  Maxwell

President Michael D Higgins with Fr Noel Barber SJ, at the National Gallery of Ireland, to mark the 25th anniversary of unveiling of Caravaggio’s ‘The Taking of Christ’. Photograph: Maxwell

 

Surrounded by a crowd of art aficionados and unsuspecting onlookers in Room 41 of the National Gallery of Ireland on Thursday, President Michael D Higgins stood in awe of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ.

Speaking at a celebration to mark the 25th anniversary of the painting’s unveiling, the President said it was “ one of the most significant events in the history of the National Gallery”.

As minister for arts, culture and the gaeltacht in 1993, Mr Higgins was present when The Taking of Christ – which dates back to 1602 – made its debut at the Gallery on November 16th. And, he told The Irish Times, he once spent an evening in the mid-1990s observing the painting’s beauty with members of The Rolling Stones, who he said “stayed for ages looking at it”.

“It’s a powerful humanist statement but yet it has also spiritual significance,” the President said. “It’s one of those pictures that you could come to again and again.”

While Caravaggio’s painting has been one of the National Gallery’s most popular pieces over the past few decades, the celebration of its 25th anniversary would not have been possible without Fr Noel Barber SJ. The Jesuit priest contacted the Gallery in 1990 about restoring a piece of art that had been hanging above a dining table at the Jesuit community house on Leeson Street for nearly 60 years.

Meticulous research

When the Gallery’s senior conservator at the time, Sergio Benedetti, examined the painting – which depicts Christ’s arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane – he noticed its composition matched that of a missing Caravaggio.

Three years of meticulous research, analysis and consultation with international experts followed to authenticate the painting before it went on public display.

“It was terrific to be involved with something of that magnitude even though my part was small,” Fr Barber said on Thursday. “It was great to, as a part of the Jesuits, be able to hand it over to the state on indefinite loan . . . I was full of amazement and joy.”

Festivities commemorating the 25th anniversary of the painting’s unveiling took place throughout the day at the National Gallery.

Two screenings of the investigative BBC art documentary Private Life of a Masterpiece: ‘The Taking of Christ’ by Caravaggio, were shown. A conversation about the painting’s discovery between Fr Barber and former Gallery director Raymond Keaveney was due to take place on Thursday evening. This was due to be followed by a lecture with Professor Richard Spear, Professor Emeritus, Oberlin College, and Affiliate Research Professor, University of Maryland.

A night of 90s nostalgia, special guided tours and pop-up music performances as part of the Gallery’s ongoing “Thursday Lates” series were also planned.

Commenting on the popularity and importance of The Taking of Christ, National Gallery of Ireland director Sean Rainbird cited the painting’s gritty realism and the romantic appeal of its discovery.

“It’s a firm favourite of our public, whether from here or from overseas, and I think it will always remain that,” Rainbird said.

“This rediscovered masterpiece has a special place in the Gallery and we remain indebted to the Irish Jesuit community for their continued generosity in making the work available on loan.”