Some of my favorite books and movies are art related. One of the first art novels I read was Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Tracey Chevalier. It’s a novel about Johannes Vermeer, life in 17th century Delft, Holland and the girl who sat for his famous masterpiece. The movie starring Scarlett Johansson & Colin Firth was also very well done and seemed to employ Vermeer-type lighting.
Since Girl with a Pearl Earring, many other art novels have been written. One of my favorites, is The Lost Painting, by Jonathan Harr. Harr is the author of A Civil Action and professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. In this book, Harr weaves a detective-type fictional story, based on solid documentation, about a priceless Caravaggio masterpiece, The Taking of Christ c. 1602, which had been missing for two centuries. As you may surmise from the title of the book, the painting is discovered.
The book revolves around Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Caravaggio scholars (I was not aware, but there are thousands), conservators and the incredible records from the European archives. It also gives an inside look into the dealings of museums and galleries, as well as the conservation process and it’s associated pitfalls.
As the story unfolds, a clue discovered by a graduate student while scouring some European archives, leads to the search for the painting. The archived documentation indicated that the painting was located somewhere in the UK.
In addition to the original Taking of Christ, there were also 12 known copies of the painting, some believed to have been painted by Caravaggio, his students, or his “studio help”. One of the copies was stolen in 2008 from the Odessa Museum in Ukraine and later recovered when the thieves tried to sell it in Germany.
As the search for the original painting intensifies, a Caravaggio scholar/conservator is called by a monastery in Ireland to look at a painting which required cleaning and restoration. When the conservator sees the painting, he immediately knows what he has found, the long-lost Caravaggio, the Taking of Christ. The conservator does not reveal his discovery to the monastery.
The story now changes direction and delves into the analysis of the painting to prove it’s authenticity. To completely verify this, the conservator wanted to acquire another Caravaggio and take a minute fleck of paint for analysis and comparison to confirm the painting was painted by Caravaggio himself. Acquiring another Caravaggio to make this comparison was a difficult task which took many months of negotiations with the museums of the UK. Finally, another Caravaggio is acquired on loan. However, when the painting arrived, any material analysis had been cleverly precluded by the loaning institution.
Eventually, a conclusive determination is made that the painting is indeed the original Taking of Christ, and the conservation process is started. During the initial restoration, improper materials were used which caused major, near catastrophic problems. The painting required a second restoration in a more appropriate manner using the materials of Caravaggio’s era. Astoundingly, this restoration was also seriously botched again and a third and final restoration was required.
Today the painting resides in the National Gallery of Ireland, on permanent loan from the monastery.
For me & many others, the book is a page-turner. Learning about Caravaggio, the scholars, the archives, the conservation process and some of the dealings between museums, was very interesting & informative.
The image of the Taking of Christ. Caravaggio painted himself in many of his paintings. The man at the far right with the dark beard holding the lantern which illuminates the scene is believed to be Caravaggio.
by Jim Gallugi