Caravaggio vs. Guercino

Caravaggio Taking of Christ

Guercino Betrayal of Christ

Bella White compares Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s ‘Taking of Christ’ and Il Guercino’s ‘Betrayal of Christ’.

Although it is often argued that Albrecht Dürer was a considerable influence on Il Guercino’s ‘Betrayal of Christ’ (c.1621), it would be impossible to ignore the effect of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, in particular his ‘Taking of Christ’, displayed in the National Gallery of Ireland.

As critic Michael Fried has pointed out, the ‘Taking of Christ’ is the only painting by Caravaggio to include Christ as well as the painter himself. It was rediscovered in Dublin as late as 1998 and has been considered, by those including Fried, as ‘among the most extraordinary in Caravaggio’s oeuvre’. It is thought to have been commissioned by Ciriaco Mattei, a leading patron of Caravaggio, together with Giustiniani and Del Monte.

The similarities between ‘Taking of Christ’ and Guercino’s ‘Betrayal of Christ’, exhibited in the Fitzwilliam Museum (University of Cambridge), are indisputable. Guercino travelled to Rome in May 1621, where he would undoubtedly have viewed a number of Caravaggio’s compositions, as well as living in the Italian city of Cento where it would have been impossible to avoid the presence and influence of Caravaggism. Critics such as Denis Mahon maintain the likelihood that Guercino would have seen Caravaggio’s painting. Moreover, both Guercino and Caravaggio were undeniably influenced by Dürer’s Woodcut of 1509.

Their armour is ‘perfectly rendered’ yet in an almost reptilian, inhuman way that portrays them as somewhat aversive and impersonal.

Both paintings depict Christ’s hands clasped loosely in a reflection of calm yet steadfast awareness. Prominent in contrast to the dark background, the figure of Jesus in the ‘Taking of Christ’ sways slightly to the left but does not recoil, whereas Guercino’s composition could even be considered to be a ‘study of hands’, as Brilliana Harley proposes. At least twelve hands are visible in his composition, used almost as vehicles of emotion. Judas firmly clutches his moneybag, whilst the rope-thrower’s hands, covered in steel armour, grasps the rope almost robotically.

In each painting Judas appears with a brow furrowed. Caravaggio seems to depict the kiss of Judas as he grasps Christ’s arm whereas in Guercino’s ‘Betrayal of Christ’ Judas does not touch Christ. It is interesting to contrast these intense focal points with Carravaggio’s three armoured and helmeted soldiers. As Fried observes, their armour is ‘perfectly rendered’ yet in an almost reptilian, inhuman way that portrays them as somewhat aversive and impersonal. This is added to by the fact that their helmets cover almost all of their faces.

Another striking similarity is the two painters’ use of light, particularly that of chiaroscuro. The reflection on Caravaggio’s armour, a recurrent detail in his work, is of a more precise, crisp quality than Guercino’s helmets. Its brightness suggests the light might be from a source such as the moon. Guercino’s illumination of Christ’s neck and shoulders is so bright that it is almost as if the lantern was added as an afterthought.

What is perhaps most thought-provoking is the contrast of Caravaggio’s anonymous, almost inhuman, profiles and Guercino’s grimacing figures.

A further parallel to be drawn between both paintings is the half-length format. The naturalist approach of Guercino in the ‘Betrayal of Christ’ suggests he must have been aware of Caravaggio’s work. Caravaggio appears to turn a religious scene into a genre scene, enabling the spectator to relate to the divine. The figures in both Caravaggio and Guercino’s pictures are strikingly realistic. Caravaggio uses a swirl of drapery to frame Christ and Judas’ head, similar to Guercino’s rope.

There are some differences between both artists’ work. Caravaggio’s ‘Taking of Christ’ illustrates ‘the calm before the storm’ whilst Guercino’s ‘Betrayal of Christ’ is a concentration on the moment of Christ’s arrest – ‘the storm fully unleashed’. Guercino seems more intent on arousing a dramatic response. What is perhaps most thought-provoking is the contrast of Caravaggio’s anonymous, almost inhuman, profiles and Guercino’s grimacing figures.

It is likely that many of Caravaggio’s other works also influenced Guercino. ‘Supper at Emmaus’ (1601), like the ‘Betrayal of Christ’, depicts a sudden moment of realisation using the atmospheric artistic technique of tenebrism – one which Guercino would go on to use. Caravaggio’s most classical composition, ‘Entombment’ (1602-1603), also uses light as a metaphor of salvation.

Caravaggio’s ‘Taking of Christ’ is currently displayed in the National Gallery of Ireland. Guercino’s ‘Betrayal of Christ’ may be seen in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

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