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Jesus before the Sanhedrin

Christ and Caiaphas

Francesco Ubertini called Bachiacca. (1494-1557). Galleria degli Uffizi – Florence.

Christ before Caiaphas

Luca Cambiaso (1527-1585). Accademia Lingustica di belle Arti. Genoa. 1570-1575.

The men who had arrested Jesus led him off to the house of Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were assembled. Peter followed him at a distance right to the high priest’s palace, and he went in and sat down with the attendants to see what the end would be.

The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus, however false, on which they might have him executed. But they could not find any, though several lying witnesses came forward. Eventually two came forward and made a statement. This man said, “I have power to destroy the Temple of God and in three days build it up”. The high priest then rose and said to him, “Have you no answer to that? What is this evidence these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus was silent. And the high priest said to him, “I put you on oath by the living God to tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus answered him, “It is you who say it. But I tell you that from this time onward you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven”. Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed. What need of witnesses have we now? There! You have just heard the blasphemy. What is your opinion?” They answered, “He deserves to die.” Then they spat in his face and hit him with their fists; other said as they struck him, “Prophesy to us, Christ! Who hit you then?” G38

Thus goes the story of Matthew of Jesus’ accusation before the high priest Caiaphas. Francesco Ubertini, a painter of Florence called Bachiacca, who lived from 1494 to 1557, made a picture of this part of Jesus’ last ordeal. Baccio and Francesco Ubertini were students of Pietro Perugino in Florence. Vasari told in the ‘Lives of the Artists’, in the life of Perugino, that Bachiacca was a ‘most diligent master of small figures’ and that he ‘took delight in making grotesques’ G46 . Bachiacca made paintings for wooden cabinets and also cartoons for tapestries.

A serene Jesus is brought, hands bound, before the high priest. Jesus looks gentle and youthful. He is not yet the man of sorrows and neither are signs of torture shown on him. Jesus is even slightly smiling; he does not look at Caiaphas and seems to remain in the stoic silence as is told in the Gospels. He is dressed in a flowing robe that covers him completely and that even hangs down very low to the floor. Jesus has long, well-kept hair, which lends him an air of intellectualism and frailty. This way of depicting Jesus was maybe not new, but also not usual.

Jesus is a serene youth but around him are cruel, weird faces of soldiers and scribes. Guards are bringing Jesus before the high priest. The scribes are arguing to Caiaphas, pointing out the wrong statements on Jesus. Bachiacca has shown the scribes in the lavish dresses of his contemporary Italy. One scribe particularly, the one on the extreme left side, looks like madman. His red hair is dressed on his head, his lips are full and opened as if in a scream. Bachiacca certainly wanted to show some of the mad cruelty around Jesus in this figure.

Caiaphas is sitting like an oriental potentate on a throne in a courtyard. In the times of Ubertini the cruel men that judged Jesus could be represented as the rulers of the East, the Arab and Turk Muslims, who fought Europeans all around the Mediterranean and in Eastern Europe. The high priest has the cold face of the sophisticated, smart and scheming Arab ruler. Ubertini has brought several images together, for Jesus wears already here the purple robe that the Roman soldiers would put around him mockingly. And in the background is a small scene wherein Pilate washes his hands. This is a scene of the future.

Bachiacca’s aim with this picture was clearly to give a vivid tale of a story that happened in a far land. The painter thus emphasised the oriental features of the scene and showed how Jesus was condemned not by learned Jews but by cruel Arabs who always were a menace to trade in the Mediterranean and who had defeated the European knights in the Holy Land.

Bachiacca took delight in painting and in composing grotesques. Some of the artist’s preferences for exotic scenes are shown in ‘Christ and Caiaphas’. Bachiacca used Orientalism, even in the Roman Pilate scene, to induce the general exotic feeling. He worked towards the exaggerations of the later Italian Mannerist painters and is thus one of the first artists of this movement. The evolution towards fantasies and wild images that could finally also be shown by painters, can be discerned in this picture.

Luca Cambiaso, a painter of Genoa, made also a picture of ‘Jesus before Caiaphas’. This painting is remarkable in several features for the sixteenth century. It was night when Jesus was brought to the Sanhedrin, and Jesus was brought to Caiaphas’ house. So Cambiaso painted the scene inside the house, where the figures are only lit by candlelight. Cambiaso was one of the first painters to show scenes lit by the artificial light of candles. During Gothic and Renaissance times painters flooded their pictures by the divine light that came from all sides, so that shadows were practically absent. They also used the natural light from the sun or from the skies, but even than they were spare with shadows. Chiaroscuro was of course necessary to shape the volume of the bodies of the personages, but the effects of light and shadow were otherwise seldom dramatic. Luca Cambiaso was one of the truly famous painters to introduce candlelight scenes, with powerful effects of shadows. Later, other painters used this technique and made the style typically their own, such as Gherard van Honthorst (1590- 1656) – who was even called Gherardo delle Notte (Gerard of the Nights) – in Italy, as well as Georges de La Tour (1593 – 1652) in France. These painters were a generation elder than Luca Cambiaso. Cambiaso made many pictures in which he privileged light effects over colour and in this way he certainly was a forerunner for other Genoese artists such as Alessandro Magnasco (1667 – 1749), and other Italian painters like Giulio Cesare Procaccini (1574-1625) and maybe even the great Caravaggio (1570 – 1610). Caravaggio and other painters in Rome could study Cambiaso’s works in the Giustiniani collection of Rome. The roots of the Giustiniani were in Genoa and they had many pictures of Luca Cambiaso. Cambiaso then could have had a determining influence on the better known innovations of Caravaggio.

Luca Cambiaso’s painting is also remarkable because we sense a simplification of forms that transformed the curved, organic volumes of the human body to straight lines and hooked shapes. Look for instance at Jesus’ face and legs. Jesus’ face is almost flat and expressionless. The line of his nose lies in the continuation of the line of his forehead. Jesus’ robe is tended in straight liens around his legs. His arms are not curved but make well-determined angles with his body. Such straight lines we also remark on Caiaphas’ body. Luca Cambiaso enhanced the long, vertical lines of the standing personages in the elongated figures of the Sanhedrin. He drew figures composed of almost elementary shapes: of cubes, cones, squares and triangles, near-perfect ovals. Cambiaso may have learned this technique from his father Giovanni Cambiaso, who is believed to have adopted a technique of subdividing the body in elementary shapes, to better draw the effects of perspective on the human body in foreshortening effects. In the sixteenth century other painters such as Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer made studies on the proportions of the body. We sense in ‘Jesus before Caiaphas’ the rapid, underlying sketch o straight shapes, filled in later and softened with colours – which remained sparse – and the artist seemed to have been unable to transform the simple shapes after all. Luca Cambiaso may have left this process visible, particularly in Jesus with an aim. Cambiaso obtained that Jesus is otherwise shown than the other personages. That effect would mean that Jesus was more the symbol for Cambiaso than the real man.

In later centuries, and we have to go now to the beginning of the twentieth century, artists sought in perfect squares, rectangles and triangles the shapes that were not to be found in nature, so they understood these were truly man-created shapes, and man-imagined forms. The fundamental geometric shapes therefore received a meaning that was mysterious if not transcendental, a meaning of some form of supremacy of man’s mind over nature. If Luca Cambiaso used sharp outlines on the figure of Jesus in this sense, Cambiaso’s painting is not only a striking but also a premonitory idea and a t least an idea of genius.

In the scene of ‘Jesus before Caiaphas’ we see an imposing high Priest painted with a truer-than-life realism, such as one would have expected only from Caravaggio a few decades later. This feature also adds to the fact that we are in the presence of a rare and special picture. Luca Cambiaso painted marvellously the psychology of Caiaphas. The man has probably been drawn out of his first sleep. His eyes are deeply set in his face, in the dark shadows, maybe even still half closed. Caiaphas does not speak but looks at the evidence that the Jews have written down form him on several small sheets of paper. He fingers these pages and points them out accusingly for Jesus. Still, with his deep-set eyes we do not know whether Caiaphas really looks at Jesus too. He has an old, stern, dignified face. His mouth is closed in a determined, hard way. Like his eyes, his mouth – which might betray his emotions and reactions – is inwardly drawn. Caiaphas’ beard covers his mouth and is forced forward. This man will judge without remorse, without pity and without showing any possible personal reaction of doubt or compassion. He will not betray any personal feelings by a movement of his face. His face has become set with time to his function. Cambiaso painted Caiaphas to be a rock among the people, solid, opulent, broad in shoulders and chest. Cambiaso brought most of the light of the candles to Caiaphas’ face, so that the viewer has no doubt that this man is the ultimate judge and the very main personage of the painting.

In most other paintings of this scene of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, Jesus remains the main figure. Luca Cambiaso did otherwise, which is the sign of a powerful and self-confident artist that dared to innovate. Only a powerful artist can draw forceful personages. We have seen only few paintings in which such a strong man like Cambiaso’s Caiaphas is shown. The only other figure on which some light from the candles is thrown is Jesus. Jesus stands before Caiaphas humbled and silent. Jesus looks at the papers of his accusation, but in doing that he bends his head downwards, in defeat. Caiaphas has most authority here, and accuses. Jesus knows what will come; here it is not he who commands, and he is already much directed inwardly, into himself, as many prisoners do when a judgement is inevitable and known. Jesus addresses with his eyes, which are likewise almost hidden, no men from the group and also not the viewer. Luca Cambiaso emphasised with light the simpler, more artificial volumes of Jesus’ body members, of Jesus’ arms and legs. Jesus is not really present in the scene, or only half present, as compared to Caiaphas, who is solid materiality. Jesus’ body is also almost hidden between soldiers. Cambiaso painted the sheer black shadow of a soldier, who turns his back to the audience, between Caiaphas and Jesus. A word of incomprehension separates the two, and violence separates them. Caiaphas should indeed not confront Jesus directly and Luca Cambiaso did well to bring a dark mass between the two figures, so that these remained the only two easily visible, different, striking personages of the painting. Cambiaso’s image is thus perfect in its immediacy of effect, of its evoking of easy understanding by the spectator of the two actors of the tragedy.

Of the other figures we only see the faces, some of which are only imperfectly painted with colours and less drawn with lines. Here we see only grimaces, rage, ugliness and even idiocy, as we might expect in a painting by Jerome Bosch or Lorenzo Lotto. These faces evoke in the viewer the horror and injustice of the scene. Cambiaso painted a picture in which the vertical lines dominate, but all the faces are situated in a narrow horizontal band, where the action plays, and the faces encircle and imprison Jesus. Still, there is an exception in the painting.

Jesus looks down to Caiaphas's pointing fingers. That look leads however also the viewer to the lower left, where Cambiaso painted the figure of a boy. The boy is out of place among the Sanhedrin and the soldiers. But the viewer readily discovers the link between Jesus and the child. The viewer observes that the child is, like Caiaphas and Jesus, painted in bright light. That should be an indication enough that the painter had a message to tell with this figure too. Jesus looks at the boy and he may suddenly see his own youth in retrospect, his happy and innocent days, as well as the years between his youth and his present state. It was like a youth such as this that Jesus already confronted the doctors in the Temple and argued with them. In the normal psychology of a condemned person, Jesus remembers his past years in an instant of time. Cambiaso suggests thus the ending of life and the nostalgia of the happiness of youth, the marvel of life, but also the missed occasions. One thinks at how the years have passed, at what one should have done otherwise, which occasions one has missed to do better things, how one was once filled with the hope of doing great deeds, and of how much should still have to be done. By the link between the child and Jesus – and no other figures are thus linked – Luca Cambiaso opened a very wide world of thoughts, of impressions, of remembering, beyond the mere picture frame, only to fascinate more the viewer and catch the viewer in his or her turn in thoughts.

The child is also a symbol of hope. The boy may be a grandchild to Caiaphas and the child may have admired the High Priest much. But he looks not at the High ¨Priest with admiration; the boy looks at Jesus. We sense that he will follow Jesus later and become a Christian, like so many others would be fascinated by the figure of Jesus and by the strange example of his death. The boy will leave Caiaphas and follow Jesus. In the child lies the only hope of Jesus, so here is where Jesus looks. Finally, Jesus does not seem to be linked to Caiaphas either. Jesus does not look at all at Caiaphas. The High Priest is but an instrument, and Jesus knows all about the true role of Caiaphas. Caiaphas has not really a choice. Neither does Jesus. Only the boy has.

Luca Cambiaso painted a seemingly static picture, with austere and hard, vertical and horizontal lines. But he also brought movement in his figures. Caiaphas points to the papers; the heads of the figures are inclined; a soldier grasps Jesus at the neck and draws so much on his robe that it opens; the boy grasps something under the table. Cambiaso combined variety of action with the moment perpetuated in structure.

Luca Cambiaso painted a night scene. It is striking how, decades later, Georges de La Tour, a seventeenth century French painter of the Lorraine region, worked equally on candlelight scenes and used the same rigidness of representation as Cambiaso. De La Tour also painted in his candlelight figures very regular, straight lines and simpler shapes. Cambiaso and de la Tour may have keenly remarked how in little light indeed our mind sees and recognises the simpler shapes only, among other wise complex forms. We remarked this on Cambiaso’s Jesus, but also on the simple ovals of the armour of the soldier on the right. Very few painters have observed and studied these effects of light in human perception and then applied them in their paintings. Cambiaso also could not but have noticed that many colours disappear with diminishing light. Red and purple, and green hues fade away to dark grey and black in candle light. Only the white, golden and orange parts of colours remain. Cambiaso used these only to reviven his picture. De La Tour would remark the constancy of blue, but not Cambiaso. ‘Jesus before Caiaphas’ is for all these reasons not just a marvellous painting. It is a masterpiece of observation, of rich psychology, painted with wonderful skills. It is a painting that proved to have rich meaning, which leads a viewer to reflection and discovery.

Luca Cambiaso was a painter who is relatively less known and admired today. He was born near Genoa in 1527. He studied at first with his father, later visited Florence and Rome. He painted rapidly and in marvellous light colours until around 1570, when he started to experiment with dramatic effects of contrasts between light and dark. He made at least two other versions of ‘Jesus before Caiaphas’. From 1583 on he worked in Spain. He was invited to the court of King Philip II to decorate the Escurial of Madrid, the monastery-palace of the Spanish King. Luca Cambiaso may be less known today; in his own time he was famous and considered a religious, even zealous man. He painted many religious scenes throughout his career, and that was also the work he delivered at the Escurial. He died there, in the palace near Madrid, in 1585.

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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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