Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Engage the emotions

Florence Gelo
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). The Taking of Christ, 1602 Oil on canvas. 135.5 x 169.5 cm L.14702. On indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson St., Dublin, who acknowledge the kind generosity of the late Dr Marie Lea-Wilson, 1992 Photo © National Gallery of Ireland

Captivated by the paintings of Caravaggio, I search for them wherever I travel. But no encounter has been as intense and personal as The Taking of Christ in the Beit wing of the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.

The Taking of Christ depicts the moment of Jesus’s betrayal by Judas and his capture by the Temple guards. Judas Iscariot, his face inches from the face of Jesus, has just kissed and identified him to the guards. He is grasping Jesus’s shoulder. Jesus’s face is turned to the side, revealing a darkened cheek, the site of betrayal. A guard in full regalia reaches for Jesus. The action is disturbingly close to us as viewers. A man at the far right is holding a lantern. The left side of the canvas reflects the intense drama of the event: the fleeing figure, his open mouth carved on a face of terror, his eyes upturned (to God?), his hand outstretched, rigid, grasping for a distant reality other than the one unfolding behind him. Caravaggio’s intense psychological realism in the portrayal of the fleeing man reflects a face that is screaming in horror. That face is penetrating, believable, resonant, his identity remains uncertain. But I know him. He personifies anguish.

As a hospital, hospice, and trauma chaplain, I have seen that face many times: on the faces of a mother and aunt staring at the body of a young man killed in an ambush on a neighborhood street. It was Mona’s face after she was called to the emergency room. Having walked her oldest child to school, she had left her two babies asleep with a small space heater to keep them warm. The ambulance delivered her two young children to the emergency room, where they were pronounced dead from smoke asphyxiation. It was a father’s face as his son was delivered after the death of his wife. It was the face of a husband as he recalled the day he and his wife attended a Sunday service, sitting side by side in the church pew, when an armed intruder fired randomly and mortally wounded his wife with a gunshot to the head.

Having witnessed such anguish on faces for decades has enabled me to acknowledge my own inner emotional struggles while acting to help others deal with their anguish. Two examples in my own life: Early in my profession, I was deeply disturbed by screaming and sobbing, passionate expressions of grief. The intensity made it difficult for me to stay present, to be supportive and comforting. I wished people would suffer silently. Over time, I learned the skills to “stay put,” to listen, to remain calm, and to feel safe in the midst of others’ agony. Similarly, I was keenly sensitive to the foreseeable, acute pain expressed by patients who were faced with the excruciating task of saying goodbye, because of their own lost abilities or the death of a loved one. My sensitivity accrued during a childhood and young adulthood where I experienced losses due to violence, death, and suicide that did not allow me a chance to say goodbye. By learning to open my heart, accepting and coming to peace with my own pain and the pain of others without judgment, and cultivating an inquisitive attitude when probing for deeper wisdom, I transformed this source of pain and discomfort to a source of strength in my professional life.

Years of experience as a chaplain have taught me the importance of learning how to instruct the heart, to balance the intellect and emotion. Looking at narrative paintings is one vehicle that can be used to accomplish this task. Looking offers both respite and teachable moments. Respite arrives with the ability to enjoy the beauty of a painting. Teachable moments arise when guided looking directs the viewer inward. I have benefited from both.

The landscape of the inner life is a place where medical students, residents, and physicians are rarely taught to go. Yet, the task of a medical professional is to locate their interior self, to engage their emotions, and to empathize with their patients. Intimacy, compassion, and connection between a physician and a patient rest on the ability of physicians to become familiar with their own emotions as the point of departure to recognize and respond to the emotions (verbal and non-verbal) of patients. Yet, the common human response to such intense emotions is to flee. Instead, we can use paintings to practice staying put, to recognize the thoughts and feelings that arise, and to share our emotions with others. Paintings can offer life’s truth messages conveyed in the form of visuals and deliver knowledge that reflects human life.

A portrait of suffering like The Taking of Christ, painted by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, challenges one’s emotions and is a powerful teaching tool. “Close looking” is a method, a teaching tool, for cultivating the capacity to look deliberately. Close looking can improve attention, enhance patience, and cultivate tolerance for perplexity and uncertainty and a growing capacity for unexpected emotional responses in the form of feelings and thoughts. Looking at this particular painting, a viewer might respond: “The fleeing man is a coward.” “I feel a bit sorry for the fleeing man.” “I am embarrassed and disappointed that Jesus is so resigned to his fate.” “Jesus’s face brings me to tears.” “Judas taught me how little love matters!”

Guided close looking in a safe holding environment can facilitate self-awareness and teach a therapeutic use of self: including a “self” that listens, uses knowledge and skill with confidence, is self-aware, and is capable of partnering with a patient to initiate a supportive relationship that is genuine, respectful, and creative.

The fleeing figure in The Taking of Christ depicts the outer (facial) expression of the internally experienced horror and shock. Caravaggio then masterfully allows us to go deeper and become aware of our inner life. The face of the fleeing man that initially draws our eyes away from Jesus draws us back to the central, lamp-lit face of Jesus. Jesus’s furrowed brow, downcast and resigned eyes, and anguished face support the belief that he knew that his capture and death were imminent. These visual depictions of Jesus’s face are outer expressions of interiority. Our attention is directed to the counterpoised figures of Jesus’s meditative anguish against the reactive horror of the open-mouthed fleeing figure.

Consider the challenge Caravaggio has placed before us. Would this painting be complete if the viewer saw only a painting of a fleeing man and of Jesus’s arrest? Most viewers would agree that the painting itself is majestic and needs only to be appreciated as paint on canvas. However, The Taking of Christ, viewed beyond its surface, invites us into the human struggle experienced by Jesus and engages our capacity to understand and to empathize with others. Caravaggio’s painting unearths, visualizes, and forces the viewer to recognize their own feelings (embarrassment, love, sympathy, interest) and identify their own emotions (joy, anger, fear, disappointment) as they respond to the narrative of the painting. It is possible that we who serve as faculty in medical humanities can enhance practitioners’ ability to empathize with their patients by viewing and discussing dramatic portrayals of suffering such as that observed in The Taking of Christ and other dramatic narrative paintings. Encounters with the visual arts can help the medical professional to balance intellect with emotion and cultivate empathic skills.



FLORENCE GELO, D.Min, NCPsyA, is a medical humanities and behavioral science educator. She directed and produced “The HeART of Empathy: Using the Visual Arts in Medical Education,” and uses the visual arts as a teaching tool to enhance clinical skills. She has published many articles about illness, death, and dying in professional journals.


Winter 2020  |  Sections  |  Education

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