Dark and Stormy – Caravaggio at the National Gallery

With a travelling exhibition of works by Caravaggio on display at the National Gallery of Ireland, Zuzia Whelan takes a look at what’s on offer, and why this is worth an entrance fee. 

With an expression of confusion and moral outrage on his face, a young boy dangles a lizard from his finger. Clean, short fingernails, and small, glossy lizard. The reptile was hiding in an abundance of dark fruit and leaves, his eyes picked out by the same light illuminating a glass vase of water, and a smooth white shoulder.

Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard is not the centrepiece of this exhibition, but it is a gateway to a revolutionary style. The chiaroscuro Caravaggio is famed for is in early bloom, with a stark contrast of light and dark on rolling shoulder, extended fingers and receding throat.

The Italian painter and baroque bad-boy was the artistically gifted rogue of the 17th century. Famous for his use of chiaroscuro (contrast of light and dark), tenebroso (dark style) and murky dealings both inside and out of the frame, Caravaggio today has mass appeal and more than a dash of intrigue.  

Born in 1571, most of what we know about the painter is from police records of the time. Frequently arrested and imprisoned, Caravaggio eventually killed a man over a gambling debt and spent his twilight years on the run from the law.

Few of the paintings on display in ‘Beyond Caravaggio – The Dark – The Light – The Drama’ are by Caravaggio himself. The title is apt – nobody put on a show like Caravaggio – but the body of the exhibition is made up of followers, notably Orazio and Susanna Gentileschi, and Georges de La Tour.

The modern lines and open spaces of the Millennium Wing give way to blood red walls and ornate, gilt frames. Many of the paintings are large-format, and are given plenty of space to catch eyes and parade their wares.

Boy bitten by a lizard (1594-6), Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, via  Wikimedia Commons


A revolution 

The revolutionary verve of the artist is not so distant from his own troubled life and temperament. Dark, violent, psychologically and emotionally complex, his imagery is heavy with meaning. What came before – the Renaissance – was the beautiful bones. What Caravaggio brings is the corporeal and grotesque.

‘Beyond Caravaggio’ is a revolution taking place before our eyes. These are not saints in human form, elevated beyond our reach. They are wrinkled old men with sagging skin, liver-spotted brows and filthy fingernails. They are beautiful young boys with a green tinge to their skin; tenuous youth is catching up to them.

Not only are we treated to the dingy details, we are included in them. The reality of the paintings spills into our own. In The Supper at Emmaus, the fingers of St Peter’s outstretched arm reach towards us, while Cleophas on the left has his back turned towards us, his elbows out and shoulders hunched in disbelief. Jesus himself, portrayed without a beard, gestures towards the viewer.

The Supper at Emmaus (1601), Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, via Wikimedia Commons

In Gerrit van Honthorst’s Christ Before the High Priest there is the shimmering light-dark contrast of candlelight on skin. The use of concentrated, detailed gestures in open spaces is familiar, and once more pulls us into the action.

De La Tour’s Dice Players are not as gnarled as Cravaggio’s many tavern patrons; their skin is luminous, and their armour appears to be made from liquid. The heightened difference between light and dark here is pure chiaroscuro. 

‘Christ before the High Priest’ (1617), Gerrit van Honthorst, via Wikimedia Commons


Dublin links 
For 30 years, there hung a painting on the dining room wall of the Leeson Street Jesuit Community. It was accredited to Gabriel Honthorst – a Dutch painter, also part of the exhibition.

It was only in the 1990s during an 18-month restoration at the National Gallery, that it emerged that Honthorst was not the painter. It was, in fact, a lost work by Caravaggio.

Record numbers attended the unveiling at the gallery, and The Taking of Christ has been on indefinite loan from the Jesuit Community ever since.  

For those who frequent the gallery, or who remember the commotion at the time, it is little wonder that the painting is loved so dearly.

‘Beyond Caravaggio’, the exhibition, feels like a natural fit; a homecoming.

The Taking of Christ is the heavyweight of this exhibition. Little empty space is left over, and with the action so close to the picture plane, the viewer is pulled right in. A balding, crease-faced Judas is sullenly pressing his lips to Jesus’ cheek, as Christ himself looks disappointed, his fingers tangled in the remains of a prayer.

Off to the right, the painter inserts himself, holding a lantern. The dark gleam of metal on the backs of soldiers tells us there’s nothing to see here.

Perhaps this is why the viewer is made to feel complicit.

For those who marvel at the mercurial, study sleight of hand, and revere the histrionic – you won’t be disappointed.

The Taking of Christ, (1602), Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, via Wikimedia Commons


Education, public engagement and special tour groups

It is a grandiose collaborative effort by the National Galleries of Ireland, Scotland and London, and a number of private collectors.

The exhibition also boasts a large and diverse education and public engagement programme, including pop-up talks, tours of the exhibition with an art historian, Thursday night lectures, drawing workshops, performances and free movie screenings of art historical films, notably the Simon Schama ‘The Power of Art’ series.

Specially tailored tours for the visually impaired, those with dementia and children and their families from the Laura Lynn Children’s Hospice are also available upon request, and delivered by staff with specific training.

There are also many events for secondary and primary school students, community outreach groups, and a variety of workshops and classes for families and young children.

All around, it appears that arts, culture and literature are underfunded and under-loved, and that there is always something newer demanding our attention. In the past year, the National Gallery has welcomed over ¾ million patrons; their highest ever attendance. There is hope yet.


  • Entry to the exhibition costs: €15 at full price, €10 for concession tickets, €10 for all visitors on Tuesdays, €5 for students, €5 on Thursday evenings from 5-8.30 pm and is free for school tour bookings, friends of the NGI and children under 16.
  • The exhibition is running from 11th February, to 14th May.
  • More information is available on the gallery’s website
  • The full public engagement and education programme is available here



Feature image: ‘The Taking of Christ’, by Web Gallery of Art via Wikimedia Commons
Video source: Trailer of ‘Beyond Cravaggio’, by the National Gallery of Ireland

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