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When it was announced in January that the National Gallery in London would lend its celebrated The Supper at Emmaus (1601) by Caravaggio to the Ulster Museum in Belfast—under the National Treasures scheme to mark the London gallery’s 200th anniversary—there was much talk of an elegant curatorial plan to show the picture in a room with natural light, for unhurried contemplation.

What was not known then was that the Belfast institution, led by Anne Stewart, the senior curator of art at the Ulster Museum, would two months later announce a further loan from the Jesuit Fathers and the National Gallery of Ireland, in Dublin, in the shape of the artist’s The Taking of Christ (1602). So that a loan within the UK would be paired with a loan within the island of Ireland.

The exhibition, which opened on 10 May, of two of Caravaggio’s greatest masterpieces—painted by the bad boy of Baroque art four centuries ago to hang in the palazzo of the same Roman collector—is a cultural triumph for all three museums. Caroline Campbell, director of the National Gallery, Dublin, lauded it as a “north-south-east-west” moment of collaboration between Belfast, Dublin and London.

“We are delighted to be partnering with Ulster Museum on National Treasures,” Alexandra Kavanagh, the head of national touring at the National Gallery, London, says. “It’s wonderful see this display alongside the National Gallery of Ireland’s equally excellent Caravaggio. It sums up exactly the sort of dialogues we hoped to spark through this bicentenary [National Treasures] project.”

The result is that visitors to Ulster Museum will find not one but two Caravaggios. Both are scenes from the life of Christ of similar imposing dimensions and crepuscular tone, hung in a room that Stewart chose because she was interested “in trying to replicate, or even mirror, Caravaggio’s use of light in The Supper at Emmaus”, she tells The Art Newspaper. “This effect seemed most convincing when [that painting] was placed closest to our high north/north-west facing windows.” The visitor enters the room from the right, and encounters first The Taking, at the moment at which a passive, resigned, Christ is arrested in the garden at Gethsemane, in the prelude to his crucifixion the following day. The scene at Emmaus, to its left, and next in chronology, captures the astonishment of the disciple Cleophas as he realises that the resurrected Christ is present.

Stewart finalised the ordering in which the pictures were hung only once they were in the gallery. She was struck by how the compositions “seemed to work so differently when the order was reversed. When placed the other way around the figures seem to strain away from the centre. Placed this way they seem to move towards the centre. This seemed to bring the two paintings into an even closer relationship. The figures, particularly St John in The Taking of Christ and the disciple in The Supper at Emmaus who stretches out his arms, seem almost to be reaching towards each other.”

It was very instructive, Stewart says, “to spend time lighting the two paintings. We have used mainly natural light, and we found that the more artificial light we added the less three-dimensional the paintings became. It seemed that the natural light lit the painting extremely well and subtly, possibly this was how Caravaggio intended them to be seen, whereas artificial light tended to work against Caravaggio’s intentions. Even more interesting was that this effect also worked in the evening when the natural light was receding.”

The Mattei connection

There is the added art historical savour that this is only the sixth time in four centuries that the two pictures—painted within a year of each other for Caravaggio’s patron and protector Ciriaco Mattei (1542–1614), a member of the Papal nobility and one of the great collectors of his day—have been hung together. They were first displayed in one of the Mattei palaces, now the Palazzo Caetani, in Rome.

The Supper at Emmaus and The Taking of Christ have been shown together before at the National Gallery of Ireland in the 1992 exhibition Caravaggio and his Followers (two years after the rediscovery of The Taking of Christ in the dining room of the Jesuit Fathers, in Leeson Street, Dublin, who have since given the picture on indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland); at the National Gallery, London, in 1994; at Palazzo Barberini, Rome, in 1995; at Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome, in 2010 (the 400th anniversary of the artist’s death); and in 2016-17 for Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery, London, and on tour to Dublin and Edinburgh.

Given the furore that Caravaggio generates today—witnessed by long queues at the National Gallery, London, to see the hanging of another of its Caravaggio canvases, Salomé Receives the Head of John the Baptist (1609-10), with his The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula (1610), on loan from the Gallerie d’Italia in Naples—it is easy to forget for how long Caravaggio was out of critical and commercial and curatorial favour, between the mid-17th and mid-20th centuries.

The Supper at Emmaus was acquired soon after completion by another of Caravaggio’s patrons, the dauntless collector Cardinal Scipione Borghese. After being disposed of by the Borghese family early in the 19th century, it was eventually acquired by the British Italophile and Dante scholar George Vernon. He gave The Supper at Emmaus to the National Gallery in 1839—just 15 years after its foundation, after failing to sell it a few years before.

The Taking of Christ stayed in the Mattei family collection for two centuries but, before its sale in 1802 (with six other pictures from the collection) to the Scottish collector William Hamilton Nisbet, it had been reattributed to the Dutch artist Gerrit van Honthorst, who visited Rome five years after Caravaggio’s death in 1610, and brought the artist’s influence back to Holland and to the attention of artists including Rembrandt.

Under that misattribution to Honthorst, the painting lay unrecognised for a further 190 years—the National Gallery of Scotland rejected the painting when a Hamilton Nisbet descendant offered it as part of a bequest to the gallery in 1921. Then, in August 1990, in one of the art world’s great stories of rediscovery, it was recognised by Sergio Benedetti, senior conservator at the National Gallery of Ireland, during a routine inspection of the collection of the Jesuit Fathers.

After three years of conservation and authentication (there were then at least ten known copies against which the painting had to be compared), the conserved and authenticated The Taking of Christ was unveiled, to a rock star welcome, on 16 November 1993, in the National Gallery of Ireland exhibition Caravaggio: the Master Revealed.

Visitors to the Ulster Museum for the next four months have a rare chance to witness the latest re-meeting of these two abiding and much-copied masterpieces, 420 years and more since the young Caravaggio painted them for the Roman palace of one of his great patrons and protectors.

Caravaggio in Belfast, Ulster Museum, until 1 September

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