This Caravaggio at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is thought to be one of the last two works he painted. Dated 1610, the year of his death — an event still shrouded in mystery — the painting is about the intimate, custom-made design of betrayal.
The artist had addressed the theme before, in his great “The Taking of Christ.” In that painting, Caravaggio appears to have used the same model for Judas (who betrays Jesus with a kiss) as he uses here for Peter, who is shown being accosted by a soldier after following Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest Caiaphas. Peter — who will become the rock of the Christian church — denies any association with Jesus, thereby fulfilling his master’s prophecy that Peter will deny him three times before the cock crows. The scene takes place at night. Firelight lends the image its atmosphere of flickering contingency.
Caravaggio, who had a talent for making enemies, was interested in all the ways humans are not rocks — all the ways in which we are flimsy, inconstant and not to be depended upon. Since he was no saint himself (the Met’s catalogue entry, sounding a little like it came from the head of human resources, notes the artist’s “proclivity towards violence and his inability to get on with his colleagues”), we might extend the idea to say that he was beguiled by all the ways in which — not wishing to be martyrs to virtue — we crave transformation.
Peter would, of course, die a martyr to virtue. He was crucified upside down for his troubles. (Caravaggio painted that, too.) But in this work, he shows Peter at his lowest point, morally speaking.
Caravaggio thrusts us into the scene in all the ways we have come to associate with baroque art. He crops the composition tightly, setting the three figures against a dark background so that they almost push out of the canvas and into our own space. You can almost feel Peter’s hot and treacherous breath.
The painter removes everything inessential. But instead of bathing the figures in clarifying, rational light — as in a Renaissance painting by Raphael or Piero della Francesca — he emphasizes light’s scarcity, its transience, so that we feel we are witnessing a fleeting and precarious moment. Note how the shadows fall irrationally on the woman’s face, leaving her looking like a cubist portrait by Picasso.
Compounding the painting’s visceral charge, the figures are frail and familiar rather than idealized. We can see the dirt and wrinkles on Peter’s forehead, the grime baked into his hands. Those hands respond to his accusers’ pointing fingers with an imploring gesture that combines protest (“Who, me?”) with something more agonized, almost implying the beginnings of repentance (“Please, I’m begging you …”)
The scene is congested with unknowns and totally lacking in clarity. Caravaggio is inviting us to consider the picture more deeply, to tease out its ambivalence.
What always seems strange about Christ’s Passion is not only its predestined quality, but also Jesus’ weird involvement in “engineering” his own suffering. In the cases of first Judas and then Peter, events unfold in ways that suggest the almost erotic intimacy of betrayal. It is as if (to adapt a phrase from Saul Bellow) the knife and the wound were aching for each other.
Betrayal is awful. It is the worst. But in front of Caravaggio’s astonishing painting, it’s tempting to register an aspect of it that I suspect the artist not only understood, but also found deeply alluring. In a provocative essay about Judas, the writer Adam Phillips wrote of betrayal’s central role in creativity, transformation and growth. Recasting it as a gift, he lamented “all the opportunities to betray and be betrayed that we have missed,” the “risks that for various reasons we have avoided,” the “failures of nerve that we have re-described to ourselves as commitment, or loyalty, or integrity, or kindness.”
That is a very modern take. And, of course, to see betrayal in such terms is to buy into a mixed-up, Machiavellian world of motives and means confused with ends and ideals. A world in which the possibility of a rocklike ethical consistency is continually being eroded. A world of flickering light and ceaseless change. It’s a world that Caravaggio was one of the first to paint.