Reflections on Judas: Part 3, Judas in Art

After reading Susan Gubar's book Judas: A Biography I realized that an interesting way to approach Judas is to look at how he is portrayed throughout art history. Of particular interest is how the artistic portrayals of Judas grows have more complicated and ambivalent over time. Judas moves from being a demonic monster to an overzealous idealist or even Jesus' co-conspirator to save the world. Given all this interesting art history, during my bible class on Sunday I walked through the story of Judas told in art. What follows are some of the pictures and some of the observations I shared.

Historically, there are a couple of recurring motifs in depictions of Judas. First, Judas is often wearing a yellow robe. Yellow represents greed (the color of gold) and cowardice. Judas is also often depicted clutching a money bag. Again, this symbolizes his greed. Finally, Judas (and other Jews) is often depicted as having red hair. This is a symbol of the satanic. Some artwork that shows these motifs in portrayals of the betrayal in the garden (as always, click on the pictures for a closer look):

Giotto's The Kiss of Judas (1304-06) shows the red hair and yellow robe (on the left you also see Peter cutting off the ear of the servant):

This Kiss of Judas from the 12th Century shows the yellow underneath Judas' robe (showing us his hidden but "true colors"). Judas is also clutching a money bag. Peter is again depicted cutting off the servant's ear on the bottom left. Like the depiction above, note how Peter and Jesus have halos. Judas does not:

These motifs can also be seen in depictions of the Last Supper. All four motifs--yellow robe, money bag, red hair, missing halo--are seen Joan de Joanes' The Last Supper (1565):

As discussed in my last post, Luke and John add diabolical details to the Judas narrative, portraying Judas as in league with the devil. Thus, devilish motifs also show up in portrayals of Judas. Consider the demon who hovers behind Judas in Giotto's The Pact of Judas (1303-05) as Judas arranges with the Jewish leaders to betray Jesus:

A more subtle portrayal of the satanic is seen Cosimo Rosselli's The Last Supper (1481). Note how Judas is completely separated from Jesus and the Twelve, isolated on the other side of the table. Compare the color of Judas' halo with the halos of Jesus and the Twelve. Also, Judas has a cat behind him. Cats, as satanic familiars, were often added to depictions of Judas:

Finally, although depictions of Judas' suicide are rare when this scene is depicted demonic details were often added. Specifically, we see the soul of Judas, as a small person, leaving the body of Judas to be taken away by a demon. Consider this glasswork from 1520:

In short, from the early years of the church to the Renaissance the depictions of Judas were almost universally harsh, highlighting his cowardice, greed, or diabolical nature. However, as I mentioned above, more recent portrayals of Judas have tended to be more ambivalent. Was Judas wholly evil? This ambivalence is widely seen modern depictions of Judas in movies, plays, books, music and poetry. As Bob Dylan wonders in his song With God On Our Side:

Through many a dark hour
I been thinkin' 'bout this,
How Jesus Christ was
Betrayed by a kiss.
But I can't think for you,
You have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot had
God on his side.
I think deconstructing or psychoanalyzing Judas can get dicey. But what I really do appreciate, given Judas' diabolical history in the heart of the church, are artistic depictions that give us a human Judas. A Judas that isn't alien or monstrous, but one I can empathize with. My favorite example of this take on Judas comes from Nikolai Ge's Conscience, Judas (1891):

In Ge's painting we see, in the upper right corner, Jesus being taken away in the fading torchlight of the soldiers. Judas stands clutching himself (not a moneybag), now alone, without Christ, in the darkness. Judas looks like a figure of profound desolation and isolation. Who did Judas betray? Jesus? Himself? Regardless, Judas needs no further judgment. He has cast himself into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

And as I see him standing there I can't help but feel the urge to rush up and hold him in my arms.

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3 thoughts on “Reflections on Judas: Part 3, Judas in Art”

  1. I've always wondered how much different or "better" Peter really was compared to Judas, especially with their alleged contrasting eternal destinies in the balance. The traditional bible teaching community seems to have all of this figured out. Here are some comparisons:

    About Satan:
    Is one scenario really that much worse than the other?

    Judas - Satan "entered" Judas.
    Peter - Jesus called Peter "Satan" ... "get behind me ..."

    "Worldly sorrow vs. Godly repentence"

    "I have sinned," he said, "for I have betrayed innocent blood." ...
    So Judas threw the money into the temple and left.

    Wept bitterly.
    Went into hiding.

    What they did afterwards:
    Judas - hung himself.
    Peter - reverted back to fishing.

    I understand the traditional paradigm regards the suicide as the eternal deal breaker for Judas (I realize the first article of this series mused over the issue of suicide).

    This is wild, wild, perhaps irreverent and blasphemous speculation, but what happens if Judas does NOT betray Jesus Christ? Does Jesus
    eventually walk up to the Pharisees then Romans and turn Himself in? It was His/His Father's agenda to submit Himself unto death - somehow, someway. If Jesus, being 100000% innocent simply turns Himself in, is THAT suicide?
    I guess being a victim of an outrageous conspiracy and murder seems the only relatively digestible M.O. for our psyche. That scenario (murder) however still requires a most epic villian. But I guess God/Jesus never chose that villian - or did He?

    What if Judas "hangs in there" NO PUN INTENDED,
    and doesn't hang himself, remaining alive? Would Jesus reappear to Him and restore Judas in a similar manner He restored Peter?

    Gary Y.

  2. Richard: If you don't know it, you might really like Tom Waits' "Down There by the Train":

    It's sympathetic about Judas: "I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth...down there where the train goes slow."  I interpret that as speaking of where salvation is easy to obtain--at least for us: b/c the hard part's already taken care of by another.  It's kinda like that great old Temptations song, "People Get Ready" with its train imagery, except w/o the whole downer "There ain't no room for..." bit.  

  3. Is it possible to get a link or the name of the artist who did the glass work image for the suicide of Judas? It would be really helpful to add it to my religious art essay.

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