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Judas and the Arrest of Christ

The Taking of Christ

Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). The Bristol Museum and Art Gallery – Bristol.

The climax of Jesus’ life starts with his arrest on the Mount of Olives. The four Evangelists tell all the story of the Taking of Christ. We follow Luke’s version.

Suddenly, while Jesus was still speaking to the apostles on the Mount of Olives, a number of men appeared, and at the head of them was the man called Judas, one of the Twelve, who went up to Jesus to kiss him. Jesus said, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of man with a kiss?” His followers, seeing what was about to happen, said, “Lord, shall we use our swords?” And one of them struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. But at this Jesus said, “That is enough.” And touching the man’s ear he healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests and captains of the Temple guard and elders, who had come for him, “Am I a bandit, that you had to set out with swords and clubs? When I was among you in the Temple day after day you never made a move to lay hands on me. But this is your hour; this is the reign of darkness.” They seized him and took him to the high priest’s house. G38

John adds to this that it was Simon Peter who struck off the ear of the high priest’s servant, of whom he also gives the name: Malchus.

Anthony van Dyck painted this scene of the ‘Taking of Christ’ around 1620. Van Dyck, painter of the city of Antwerp, was then twenty-one years old. That same year he would leave briefly for England, where his fame had grown as a promising young talent. At the end of the year after, in 1621, he would leave Antwerp for Italy to stay there for six years, mainly in Genoa. Van Dyck was young and ambitious. Antwerp, though a metropolis and seaport where ships from the entire known world accosted, was too small for him. He wanted to see the world and he was confident in his skills.

Van Dyck’s painting ‘The Taking of Christ’ is a picture of these younger years. He had already made many portraits, which would become the core of his work and the speciality of skill that would many years later draw him to the court of the king of England. He made also many religious scenes. Van Dyck always made religious scenes when in Antwerp. He would do so after his return from Italy too, because portraits were not so in first demand in Antwerp. This kind of paintings – portraits – were foremost asked in England and somewhat less in Holland, but Holland did not have the rich, cultivated court life of the King of England. English court life particularly appealed to van Dyck. And portraits were the main paintings appreciated in England.

‘The Taking of Christ’ is typical of Antwerp Baroque art as instituted and brought to its zenith of fame by Pieter Paul Rubens. Around 1620 van Dyck occasionally worked for Rubens in the latter’s workshop, even though van Dyck possessed his own atelier. Van Dyck was an admirer of Rubens and he was grateful to him. He painted a portrait of Isabella Brandt, Rubens’ wife, and he gave the picture to Rubens when he left for Italy. Van Dyck may as well have given or sold a version of the ‘Taking of Christ’ to Rubens, for such a version was acquired later by the Spanish King Philip IV from Rubens’ estate. This picture is now in the Museo Nacional del Prado of Madrid B10 . The version we present is from the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. This is the second version and probably the originally commissioned altarpiece. Van Dyck made several sketches and even another oil painting in smaller format as preparation for the image we look at. So much preparation shows that this was a major picture of Van Dyck, and also important to him personally. Indeed, it is one of the principal acts in the tragedy of Jesus since it represents his betrayal.

Jesus is standing serene and very sad, almost but not entirely in the middle of the crowd in the Garden of Gethsemane. The time is night. The scene is only lit by a high torch-holder, which dramatically lightens the trees on the upper left. Jesus has abandoned himself to his fate. Van Dyck has masterly succeeded in showing this resignation on the face of Jesus. Next to Jesus, in the exact middle of the frame, stands Judas. Judas is enveloped in a wide yellow-brown cloak. This cloak seems so broad as also to want to envelop Jesus in a cloud of hatred, exactly as Giotto painted the scene in the thirteenth century in the Arena Church of Padua. In this picture of van Dyck, that will not happen. Yet, the threat is imposing. Judas holds Jesus’ hands to immobilise him and thus make sure that the mob accompanying him can seize Jesus. A half-naked Temple guard keeps a rope hidden behind Judas’ back so that Jesus would not see it. An invisible, anonymous figure throws the noose of the rope over Jesus. Only the hands of the act of the taking are shown by van Dyck. The ignominious act will remain anonymous. Humanity betrays Jesus and not just Judas. Another lecherous old guard to the right also has gripped Jesus’ shoulder. This man looks intently at the success of the rope that will imprison Jesus. In the other versions, van Dyck also has shown the violent act of Peter slaying off the ear of Malchus. But in this final image the high drama remains concentrated on Jesus and Judas alone.

Judas has bent forward to kiss Jesus and exactly at this moment the rope will fall over Jesus, thus deciding his fate. Van Dyck has presented this very moment. Showing the rope in pictures of the betrayal theme was quite rare; van Dyck used it to heighten the tragedy of the scene. Tragedy is enhanced also by the violent movements, the whirling of gestures, the curves of the rope, the curling colours all around Jesus, and the lines of the wild tree that bends over Jesus and that almost crushes the scene. Remark the lines of the tree leaves above, and the colour lines in the shoulders of the men on the left. Lances and torches are held in all directions.

The picture of the ‘Taking of Christ’ is a whirlwind of emotions in the night. Van Dyck has brought the drama to its zenith, using soft colours and the shadows of the night as rarely Rubens has dared to do. The scene must have happened this way: betrayal in confusion, and capture with bad consciences, bad faith and wrong, warped minds to tear down someone better than the crowd. The ultimate Judas act.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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