NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2008

THE KISS OF JUDAS

THE CARAVAGGIO PAINTING STOLEN FROM ODESSA WAS A FAKE.

Is the struggling, shady post-Soviet city itself a copy?

I never saw Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ (or, The Kiss of Judas) during my month in Odessa this summer. The painting was stolen the night before I turned up at the museum door.

Ukrainian and American news reports mourned the loss without mentioning provenance. Even the thieves might have believed in the Odessa “Caravaggio”; Soviet authorities promoted its authenticity to boost the bloc’s cultural cachet. But the criminals who struck at the Museum of Western and Eastern Art on Pushkin Street in late July made off with only a copy of The Taking of Christ.

The original hangs in Dublin, where it was rediscovered in 1990 after having been lost for over a century. In light of that finding, the Odessa canvas, once accepted as real, was definitively discredited. The wall had fallen, making way for an influx of Western art experts and tourists, but suddenly there was nothing to see.

Caravaggio relinquished the subtleties of mannerism and the Raphaelite ideal, relying instead on observational grit. Taking his example, I tried to see Odessa for what it was, just beneath the refurbished facades: a new Ukrainian port of flashy moguls and fleshy whores, yes, but also of old, kerchiefed women crying in the markets over the loss of a priceless canvas.

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Joshua Cohen is the author of four books, including the novels Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto and A Heaven of Others. His essays have appeared in the Forward, Nextbook, and Harper’s.

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