While planning an audacious Boston College exhibition on 17th-century Italian master painters back in 1993, Franco Mormando and Nancy Netzer got a hot tip.
A sooty, grease-splattered painting that had loomed over the dining room of a monks' residence in Ireland for 60 years had been cleaned, and lo and behold, it turned out to be a missing painting by the influential Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
These curators of the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College, were ready to pounce. They negotiated the exclusive right to display "The Taking of Christ" (1602) in an exhibition they call "Saints and Sinners: Caravaggio and the Baroque Image," now showing through May 24.
For more than 200 years, "The Taking of Christ" has been nowhere to be found. Art sleuths had scratched their heads, baffled by the disappearance of the painting of armored guards lunging at Jesus, who is draped in red and turquoise.
Unlike most museum shows, which highlight artistic style, this Baroque installation aims to make us feel.
The curators want to put viewers in 17th-century shoes. By exploring the purpose and techniques of religious art that arose after the Protestant Reformation, they hope visitors will get a notion of the Roman Catholic flair for drama, the role of sacred images, and how good and evil were viewed in the Baroque period.
"It's an innovative show because it's an interdisciplinary show," says Prof. Mormando, the exhibition's curator and editor of its catalog. In addition to art historians, he has drawn on scholars from fields as varied as Italian literature and theology to help show the art in its original moral and religious context.
McMullen director Netzer says she believes this kind of show has never been done before. Baroque paintings have been glossed over in America because they're too "in-your-face." (Caravaggio, she says, invented the close-up.)
Religious painting in this period had a renewed immediacy, similar to the profound effects created by early Byzantine icons.
Christian imagery is more accepted at the end of the 20th century than it was 25 years ago. The immediacy and personal connection in Baroque art is no longer intimidating. "I think part of what makes Caravaggio appealing [now] is that he isn't distant," she says. "He's got fingers with dirty fingernails - that's powerful. We can relate."
Another Caravaggio painting "St. John the Baptist," also never seen in the United States, will be on display in Hartford, Conn., this spring.
* Elisabetta Coletti is a member of the Monitor's staff.