First a Caravaggio, now a Michelangelo. Has lightning struck the Jesuits twice?

The 'Deposition From the Cross' by Caravaggio (CNS photo/courtesy of the Vatican Museums)

You may remember the story, back in 1993, of how a Jesuit community in Dublin discovered by chance that a grimy old painting hanging in their dining room was in fact a lost masterpiece by Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ.

The picture now hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland and is that country’s only Caravaggio. Because Caravaggio was not a particularly prolific artist, the discovery of a lost painting of his was a major event. How did such a wonderful picture come to be lost? One suspects that part of the explanation lies in the fact that in the 19th century Caravaggio was very much out of favour. Augustus Hare, for example, in his Walks in Rome, does not mention him, while spending pages on Guido Reni. Now few care about Guido, and the chapels in San Luigi dei Francesi and Santa Maria del Popolo, where the Caravaggios hang in Rome, are packed with tourists. Such is fashion.

The discovery in the art world of any lost masterpiece also brings with it the frisson of discovering that a piece of supposed junk is worth millions. We all love money, and there are several television programmes devoted purely to this phenomenon, such as the ever-popular Antiques Roadshow. The Jesuits, vowed to poverty, to their eternal credit, did not sell the picture, but lent it to the Gallery, where it can be enjoyed by everyone. Kudos to them!

Does lightning ever strike twice in the same religious order? Is it possible that the Jesuits in Oxford have had a hitherto unknown Michelangelo hanging on their walls? Such is the story in the Daily Mail (hat tip to our editor Luke).

The picture does not look like much to me, and I have to say, as one who spent three years in Campion Hall, and who looked at the pictures there closely many times, I have no memory of it at all. In those days the then Master of the Hall always cautioned me about talking about the various works of art the Hall contained. Quite a few years have passed since then, and I have the feeling that some of the treasures may have been dispersed, but I suppose I had better keep schtum even now.

The various works of art were collected by the late Fr Martin D’Arcy SJ, and were consequently known as objets d’arcy. Fr D’Arcy was probably one of the most important Catholic figures of the mid-century, the man “to whom, under God, I owe my faith” as Evelyn Waugh called him. Most of the works of art in the Hall were gifts from converts. There is a particularly splendid collection of vestments made out of the evening dresses of society ladies.

The Hall is not open to the public, which is understandable, but rather a pity. The Hall does have an annual D’Arcy Lecture in honour of its late Master, and there have been some very distinguished speakers in the past, not least the great and good Fr F C Copleston – but another way to remember Fr D’Arcy would be to put on an exhibition of his objets. It would be deeply informative, give us a wonderful picture of the Catholicism of his time, as well as being great fun.