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 hourI 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):
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.
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.