HONTHORST, Gerrit van
(b. 1590, Utrecht, d. 1656, Utrecht)

Christ before the High Priest

c. 1617
Oil on canvas, 272 x 183 cm
National Gallery, London

Honthorst, like Ter Brugghen, was a pupil of the history painter Abraham Bloemaert in Utrecht and also went to Rome. Unlike Ter Brugghen, however, he there achieved an international reputation, working for nobles and princes of the Church. The Italians called him Gherardo delle Notti, - Gerard of the Nocturnes - and this painting, made for the Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani in whose palace Honthorst stayed, explains why. On his return north of the Alps Honthorst was so famous that he was invited to England by Charles I, for whom he painted mythological subjects and many portraits. He continued to receive commissions from royalty in Holland, executing portraits and allegorical decorations for Prince Frederik Hendrik of Orange, and in 1635 he sent the first of a long series of historical and mythological narratives to Christian IV of Denmark. The exiled Queen of Bohemia, Elisabeth Stuart and her daughters were among his many pupils in The Hague.

Where Ter Brugghen in the Concert uses candlelight to create a scene of dreamlike enchantment, Honthorst employ it to lend veracity and dramatic tension to a biblical story (Matthew 26:57-64). After his capture on the night of the Agony in the Garden, Jesus is taken for interrogation and trial before the High Priest Caiaphas, where two false witnesses - the shifty-looking men behind Caiaphas - speak against him. Within the vast composition - in scale and format like an altarpiece but never intended for one - the visibility of the life-size figures depends entirely on that single candle flame. Its gleam unifies the whole, by giving the impression of illuminating the entire room with evenly decreasing intensity until its force is spent in the dark, and by justifying the reddish cast of all the colours. It allows the two principal characters to stand out more solidly in relief and in greater detail than the others. It focuses attention on their poses, gestures and expressions. It picks out the few significant accessories, notably the books of the Law and the rope by which Christ is tied, and it creates the solemn and threatening atmosphere of a night-time interrogation.

Through his mastery of the physical effects of illumination from a single source, Honthorst is also able to make symbolic points. Christ's white robe, torn from his shoulder when he was made prisoner, reflects more light than the priest's furred cloak - so that light seems to radiate from him. Though submissive, Christ is without question the main subject of the painting, the Light of the World and the Son of God.