Caravaggio at the Capitol

Even though it’s nearly two months  since a mob of Trump protesters stormed the US Capitol in Washington DC, the images of those events still have the capacity to chill.  I was particularly struck by this image by Mostafa Bassim taken right at the heart of,  and in the heat of, that monumental clash between the forces of law and the ranks of  disorder. 

With due process now taking place and a new, saner administration in power, I found myself returning to  this image, not as a record of public history, but to admire its painterly qualities.  It kept reminding me of something else, and  then I realised what it was.  The composition, the colour palette, the intensity of the emotions, those faces picked out in the crowd, seemed to chime eerily with Caravaggio’s The Taking of  Christ,  his landmark biblical painting which depicts the moment when Judas Iscariot betrays Christ with a kiss.

Caravaggio painted The Taking of Christ ( National Gallery of Ireland) in 1602.  Its immediacy and impact is achieved by his unusual  technique of placing his figures close to the picture plane.  His trademark use of theatrical chiaroscuro  ( light and shade) also gives the scene a vivid sense of drama.  Some of  these artistic tropes  are evident in Bassim’s  photograph.  

The composition of both images is  strikingly similar.  The eye is drawn to the open mouthed, bare-headed protester,  centre left in Bassim’s photo, who’s also the focus of the police’s attention.  He’s  in exactly the same position as Caravaggio’s figure of Jesus. Look at those  black-helmeted riot police who are dead-ringers for the Roman centurions in their gleaming armour in Caravaggio’s work. 

 Caravaggio employs a minimal caste in his painting, suggesting a larger crowd outside the frame.  Bassim includes the crowd in his.  The low point of view Bassim employs, allows him to capture the claustrophobic crush of hand-to-hand combat at ground level while acknowledging  the flooding light from the dome of  the rotunda  creating a loftiness of effect; the “actual” struggling with the “ideal”. 

Caravaggio often painted himself into crowd scenes and in this one, he’s tagging along at the edge, the bearded young man in the top right of the canvas, peering over the heads of the others  to get a good look.  In Bassim’s  image, the “Caravaggio” figure is the fair-headed young man who exhibits a similarly intense curiosity in the bottom left of the frame – though it’s probably fair to assume that  if he’s in the Capitol building, he’s probably more than a disinterested witness. 

A red motif runs through both images.  Caravaggio adds heat and drama with the unfurling red cloak  that forms a canopy over the heads of Christ and Judas,  and continues the trope in  the red uniforms  of the soldiers and Jesus ‘s red tunic.  The equivalent in Bassim’s  photo is  the spot colour of those red  MAGA  caps dotted throughout the crowd in the Capitol. 

The  artistic associations are further enhanced  by the location of this pitched battle – the Capitol rotunda.  The rotunda  was completed in 1824 and was intended to recall the Pantheon, the ancient Roman temple with its curved sandstone walls, its  fluted Doric pilasters and  olive branch wreaths carved into the upper friezes, all visible in this photograph.  This is a ceremonial space used for important events of state,  such as  the lying-in-state of eminent citizens, and was intended to celebrate high public culture.  In the background, we can see four paintings which were commissioned by Congress from the artist John Trumbull, which depict significant episodes of US history – The Declaration of Independence,  The Surrender of General Burgoyne, The  Surrender of Lord Cornwallis and General George Washington Resigning his Commission. 

A case of history looking down on history? 

The big difference between Caravaggio’s painting and Mostafa Bassim’s  photograph is, of course,  the circumstances in which they were produced.  Caravaggio crafted his work  carefully.  He used models and posed them for tableaux and in The Taking of Christ there are numerous instances of pentimenti  (over-painting )  which indicate he changed his mind frequently about the composition and the placement of figures.  Bassim, on the other hand, had only a split-second to capture his image, while being in the midst of the fray, and probably in mortal danger himself.  As a news photographer, it’s unlikely he was considering  composition or colour as he snapped; he was  probably concentrating on catching the moment and wondering how he was going to escape the melee and  get the images  back to his editors.

This is primarily a photograph of record – as the Trump rioters now being rounded up  realise.  Many of them were identified by photos such as this. (Those, that is,  who didn’t incriminate themselves by posing for selfies and then posting on social media.) But  in my book, it’s much more than that.  In his subtle framing of the event, his sense of theatre and context,  his understanding of emotion and politics, his lightening speed of apprehension, Bassim has created a work of art in the blink of an eye.  


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