This is the night before the Crucifixion. Jesus, knowing he will be betrayed and die on the Cross, has taken Peter, James and John to watch over him while he prays, but they have fallen asleep. According to the Gospel of Luke, Christ asked God to ‘remove this cup from me’, and an angel appeared to comfort him. Here, it bears the cup from which he will have to drink, and points to a vision of the Instruments of the Passion – the cross, the crown of thorns, the column at which Christ was flagellated, the sponge soaked in vinegar he was given to drink and the shaft of the spear that pierced his side. In the background Judas leads the soldiers coming to arrest Christ into the Garden of Gethsemene: one carries a lamp, the light of which gleams on their armour.
Ludovico Carracci produced several small paintings of this subject for private devotion. This is the earliest surviving version.
This is the night before the Crucifixion. Jesus, knowing that he will be betrayed and die on the Cross, has left the apostles after the Last Supper and taken Peter, James and John to watch over him while he prays on the Mount of Olives. However, they have fallen asleep. On the left, Saint Peter in yellow leans his head against his right hand, while the other hand grasps the sword with which he will cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. On the right, James sleeps wrapped in a red cloak, with John behind him.
Christ, kneeling on the rocky ground of the Mount, has asked, ‘Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done’ (Luke 22: 42). An angel has appeared to comfort him. It bears the cup from which Christ will have to drink, and points to a vision of the Instruments of the Passion: the Cross, the crown of thorns, the column of the Flagellation, the sponge soaked in vinegar he was given to drink, and the shaft of the spear which pierced his side. In the background Judas leads the soldiers coming to arrest Christ into the Garden of Gethsemene: one carries a lamp, the light of which gleams on their armour.
Ludovico Carracci produced several small paintings of this subject for private devotion. This is the earliest surviving version, painted in the late 1580s. Ludovico’s starting point was Correggio’s small painting of the same subject (Apsley House, London), where Christ is also dressed in blue and white and the angel is similarly elegant, although the composition is quite different. Ludovico is more interested in the narrative, and the nervous energy in this painting creates a dramatic effect. The figures of Christ, Peter and John, together with rocks of the Mount, form a solid wide-based triangle at the front, which is expanded by the larger triangle made by the opposing diagonals of the angel and the dark hillside behind Christ. Ludovico has undermined the stability of this shape, however, by placing Christ off-centre. The towering cross and the soldiers at opposite sides and on different levels further unbalance the composition, and feel as if they are pressing in on Christ, leaving him no room for escape. The angel seems more compelling than comforting, and Christ’s body rotates awkwardly backwards as he looks up at him piteously. Even the indifference of the sleeping apostles is pushing him towards the Cross and his death upon it.
The drama and emotion are increased by the use of different sources of light. The soldier’s lantern and the silvery glimmer of the moon peeping over the cloud leave Judas, his companions and the rocky landscape almost in darkness. They fade to insignificance beside the golden glow of the aura behind the instruments of the Passion, which lights up Christ and the angel, and just touches the sleeping apostles. The shadows and betrayals of this world are to be banished by the heavenly brilliance of the Christian future.
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