A simple and direct telling of a significant moment in the story of Jesus which might have sprung straight from the account in the Gospels -- that is what Vittore Carpaccio's picture of the "Agony in the Garden," painted about 1502, seems at first sight to be.
But first sight in the history of art is invariably deceptive. Carpaccio couldn't help being aware of several earlier paintings of the subject, notably those of Mantegna and Bellini. His own carefully contrived composition (part of a scheme of wall paintings for the Scuola di San Giorgio Degli Schiavoni in Venice) inevitably makes reference to these precedents.
Carpaccio did work as an assistant to Bellini, but he nevertheless had his won individual style. He was more of the busy storyteller than Bellini, and was more aware, perhaps, of the delightful multitude of small realistic details possible in a painting -- something he learned from Flemish art. To this he added his own sophisticated sense of colour and pattern, a peculiar kind of dry poetry, and a linear clarity. He excelled, in his maturity, in the depiction of dramatic events involving large numbers of people, organized into a slow, rhythmic relationship to each other.
His "Agony" is, in fact, one of the least crowded pictures of Carpaccio to come down to us. Perhaps he realized that the event depicted was not in need of extra drama. The Mantegna and Bellini treatments of the subject are characteristically direct and unfussy. The four protagonists play their parts in the foregrounds of similarly rocky landscapes, while the line of men coming to arrest Jesus approaches inexorably on the distant road. The tension and dramatic irony of a good story are built in. Carpaccio didn't reject the essence of these examples, but what he did was to introduce a new emphasis and a quite different atmosphere.
For a start he placed the event decisively in the night. Jan Lauts has described the painting's "mysterious darkness . . . in which the colours of the draperies seem to phosphoresce against the dark greens and browns of the scene." Mantegna and Bellini had both painted their landscapes suffused with dawn light, Bellini in particular identifying this rising light with the divine inspiration sought by Jesus in his prayer. But the Gospels do not indicate that the sun was up as the officers from the chief priests and Pharisees came with Judas to find Jesus. John's account says they came "with lanterns and torches and weapons": Carpaccio accordingly equips his small search party with flaring torches, suggesting that daybreak was still not imminent.
Instead of praying, as in the Bellini version, towards the natural light in the East, Carpaccio's Jesus is gazing up at an illumination symbolically suggesting deity. If there is some allegorical figure in this glow, it is far from clearly shown, and this represents a different conception from the naturalism of Bellini, because the older painter, in spite of his naturalism, still showed an ethereal winged cherub appearing to Jesus on a cloud. The experience described by Carpaccio is less universal, more enclosed by the surrounding night -- the subjective and almost private concern of a figure entirely alone, separated even from his closest friends.
Like his predecessors, Carpaccio made the sharpness and hardness of rock formations accentuate the agony: this is no garden.m He adds the dead branches of the tree, silhouetted ominously. The aridity of which his style is capable is suited to this subject. Even the slumbering disciples seem stonelike, the cloaks shrouding them in comfortless, incisive folds. Jesus is shown not just at a distance from them, but higher up, and in his pointed alertness, the erectness of his figure in contrast to the prone forms of the others, there is more than a hint of the resurrection. Painters of the two subjects can't have been unconscious of the parallels between the accepted formats for the "Agony" and the "Resurrection": the soldiers falling to the ground in the latter are echoes of the sleeping followers in the former. Carpaccio emphasizes this with great freshness by orienting his canvas vertically instead of horizontally. In this way Jesus can be shown symbolically in a higher state of thought.
The almost courtly elegance present in many of Carpaccio's pictures is forgotten in this work, but his usual restraint and lack of extrovert passion pervades it. The tension and drama are held in, contained in the sombre colours of night, the dark forms of boulder, crag, and tree-stump, in the barrenness of an unfriendly place starved of sun and fertility. Yet there is, in quiet difference, a figure representing Jesus, gentle, unmoved, almost delicate in his watching, silent hope.