Gerrit van Honthorst: Christ before the High Priest

Gerrit van Honthorst painted Christ before the High Priest, in about 1617, and it hangs in London’s National Gallery.

Christ is brought before the High Priest by whom He is questioned about His teachings and claims (Matthew 26:57-66). The intense atmosphere of the scene is heightened by the ingenious use of a visible light source between Caiaphas and Christ. Here is a modest example of tenebrism, from Italian tenebroso ('dark, gloomy, mysterious'), a technique which van Honthorst gained from Caravaggio whereby light contrasts with darkness in order to add drama and suspense to a particular scene. The bright candle illuminates both figures, with various other persons concealed by the darker background. Caiaphas, representing the Torah, which is the Jewish Law, is well illuminated, and partially also the text from which he has been reading. Yet the same light also irradiates Jesus Himself, even more so, on account of his lighter garments. The candle is so positioned that Caiaphas’ finger, pointing to heaven, could be said to be lit by the One before him. Indeed, the Lord Jesus is the Light of the world, to whom all Jewish prophecies and wisdom pointed; likewise, He is the light by which the old Hebrew institutions such as the tabernacle and the priesthood are properly understood.   

“Men and brethren, this scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning Judas, which was guide to them that took Jesus.” Acts 1:16